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For fans of Wyoming Cowboy basketball, the March Madness run of 1987 will not be forgotten

Apr 1, 2020 Kevin McKinney / University of Wyoming

As the years pass by, memories have a tendency to become a bit fuzzy.

But the memories I have of 32 years ago this spring are clear as a bell. The opponents, the players and the game details are still there, like it all happened yesterday.

We'll never forget the names: Boyd, Dembo, Dent, Fox, Jones, Leckner and Sommers. We'll never forget the games: Utah, UTEP and New Mexico, Virginia, UCLA and UNLV.

While our world faces a much greater battle now than the battles of March Madness, we all are missing that terrific event. It was 32 years ago, right now, when the Cowboys made their magical run through the Western Athletic Conference Tournament all the way to the NCAA's Sweet 16.

From March 5, 1987, through March 20, 1987, the Pokes took all of us on special ride that was only eclipsed by the 1943 National Champion Cowboys who won it all. During those 15 days, Wyoming placed us squarely on the edge of our seats through three conference tournament victories by a total of seven points, and two NCAA victories.

There's always a darling during the Dance, and in 1987 it was the Wyoming Cowboys.

If you were following the Pokes back then you were caught up in an excitement that has rarely been duplicated since (only the Cowgirls' WNIT run of 2007).

Here's one thing about that season that I had forgotten, however.

Jim Brandenburg's Cowboys lost their final three games of the regular season. . .a bitter loss to BYU in the Double A (67-63), and two on the road at New Mexico (92-89, on a buzzer three by Hunter Green) and at UTEP (74-72 on four free throws in the last minute by Mike Richmond). All heartbreakers, but losses nonetheless. The Pokes were headed to the conference tournament in Albuquerque on a downer.

That would quickly change during three fantastic days in the Pit.

While the Cowboys rode a pair of superstars through the majority of the season--Fennis Dembo and Erick Leckner--it was a pair of unsung guards who made the Western Athletic Conference Tournament of 1987 unforgettable.

On the first night of the tournament the Cowboys faced western border rival Utah, and it was a battle. They had won both ends of the regular-season series, by five at Salt Lake, and by 15 in the Double A. But the Utes played one of their best games of the year, in stretching the game to a 54-54 tie with four seconds remaining. That's when Fox kissed a 12-foot jumper off glass sending his team to the second round.

The Bear, Don Haskins, and his UTEP Miners loomed next for the Cowboys. The two teams had played two Rembrandts during the regular season, the Cowboys winning by five in Laramie and the Miners winning by two in El Paso on four free throws by Mike Richmond in the last minute.

The tournament game would be no different.

It was a classic with maybe the two best teams in the league trading punches. Wyoming actually trailed UTEP down the stretch. But the two were tied at 74 with 11 seconds remaining when Fox again wore the super man cape hitting a 20-foot jumper. A desperation try by the Miners missed, and the Cowboys were going to the championship game against the host team, New Mexico. Could the magic continue one more night?

As was common back then each team won on its home floor during the regular season. The Cowboys had beaten the Lobos by 12 in the Arena-Auditorium. New Mexico won at home as the great Hunter Green buried a three-ball at the buzzer to win in the Pit.

It was another unlikely hero who came through for the Cowboys in the championship game. The Pokes had the final possession with the game tied at 62, when New Mexico elected to foul Sean Dent, whom percentages said was a good bet to miss.

There were 11 seconds remaining when the eventual Cowboy Hall of Famer stepped to the line. He calmly sank both shots giving the Pokes a 64-62 lead. The Lobos had two opportunities after Dent's free throws but a pair of big defensive plays, one by Dent, sealed the victory. The Cowboys were headed to the Big Dance. It was a delirious moment.

It was a sweet win indeed especially considering how the regular season had ended.

The NCAA tournament committee gave the Pokes a definite advantage when it sent them to Salt Lake City for the first round as a 12thseed. The Utah Events Center was the perfect place for the Cowboys. Nearly 5,000 Wyoming fans made the trek to Salt Lake hoping for the magic to continue. It was almost like being at home. The Pokes would meet fifth seeded Virginia from the mighty ACC.

The magic would continue.

For basketball fans who loved defense, that's what they got in the NCAA first-round game. A pair of teams with defense in its DNA, slugged it out. Virginia led by one at half. In a game featuring 15 ties, the Cowboys outscored the number five seed by five in the second half to survive and advance, 64-60.

Eric Leckner, who produced an amazing post-season, led the Cowboys with 22 points and six rebounds. Fennis Dembo, who would save his best for the next opponent, scored 16 with nine rebounds. Dent added 10 points and nine assists from his point-guard spot.

In the last 1:13 of the game, the Cowboys made five out of six free throws to get the win. With the Pokes clinging to a two-point lead, Willie Jones made two critical free throws with 10 seconds remaining which sealed it, and allowed Wyoming fans to breath.

The number four seed, UCLA, with all of its NCAA tradition and lore, was next.

Even more Cowboy fans drove to Salt Lake to see if their magical team could advance further.

It was a great CBS matchup with Leckner and Dembo facing Reggie Miller and "Poo" Richardson. Much had been made of Miller, one of the nation's best shooters, but it was Dembo who produced the greatest performance ever by a Cowboy, and stole the show.

The Wyoming junior finished with 41 points, nine rebounds and six assists in 38 minutes. He was 9 of 14 from the field, including 7 of 10 from the arc. He was an amazing 16 for 16 from the free throw line. The Dembo-Miller matchup wasn't a contest. Miller finished with 24.

The Pokes trailed the Bruins for most of the game, but finally caught them taking a 65-64 lead with 5:09 remaining on a bucket by Leckner from his favorite spot, the left baseline. In the final 3:25 of the game Wyoming did not allow UCLA a field goal, and just two free throws. And, in the final 2:30, the Pokes hit 9 of 11 free throws by John Sommers, Dent and Dembo. The final was 78-68

The Cowboys were going to the Sweet 16 and a date with number-one-seeded UNLV.

It was March 20 of 1987, when the Pokes took the floor in Seattle's Kingdome. I remember walking into that cavernous building (which no longer stands) for practice with thousands of people there to watch. It was an amazing feeling. Of 64, the Cowboys were one of 16 teams left. The whole experience was unforgettable.

Wyoming withstood UNLV's relentless full-court defense for a half, and led at the break by one (39-38).

But two things happened in the second half that would not allow them to win. They couldn't stop Armon Gilliam, who scored 38 points, and they couldn't handle the pressure. Wyoming ended with 22 turnovers.

Dembo scored 27, Leckner 18 and Turk Boyd added 14. But it wasn't enough.

The sensational run had come to an end. While the brown and gold was disappointed, it didn't take much reflection to realize what a month it had been. I can still feel that immense pride to this day.

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2020-06-03

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