Thrills, chills and tears for Coug fans

PULLMAN -- Wes and Dolly McCabe of Tekoa have been WSU basketball fans so long they can tell you first-hand about the '41 Cougs that made it to the NCAA finals. They remember later successes with Don Collins, Craig Ehlo and Mark Hendrickson. But this crimson season, they said Sunday amid a sea of fans at Bohler Gym awaiting the Cougars' tourney placement, is something else entirely.

"Unbelievable," was the first word out of Wes' mouth when asked about his take on 2006-07 Cougars and their 25-7 record. "I would've never guessed."

A Palouse native, he and Dolly have been coming to Cougar games longer than most of their fellow revelers have been alive. And they take their support to heart.

Dolly stands in the runway before games and hugs all the players.

"We were here when they went to the Finals in 1941," Dolly notes with pride.

Selection Sunday couldn't have been any sweeter for them or the entire Cougar Nation. The Cougars were awarded a lofty No. 3 seed and they get to start their post-season quest on the West Coast.

They'll tip off Thursday at 11:40 am Pacific Time (CBS-TV) in Sacramento against Oral Roberts University. The Golden Eagles, from Tulsa, are 23-10 this season with a win over vaunted Kansas.

The scene Sunday at Bohler, where WSU hosted a selection-watching party for fans, was like a casting call for a major movie. There were waves of people -– all ages and shapes, mostly draped in crimson. There were the players, whose autographs were a hot commodity. And there were the TV cameras, lights, mics and cables.

Joyce Kinder, a season-ticketholder, was in tears commenting about how her late husband would have been so excited about the rebirth of Cougar basketball.

Pullman's Nancy Wexler, a die-hard fan wearing a t-shirt emblazoned GOING DANCING-NO TIE REQUIRED, was succinct in her description of this hardcourt renaissance on the Palouse: "Magical, absolutely magical."

As she talked with other fans before the tournament pairings, Nancy crossed her fingers that the Cougs would be sent to Sacramento.

As the clock ticked down and people got seated, the crowd was glued to the two giant screens split by a giant inflatable WSU logo that even 6-11 Robbie Cowgill couldn't reach if he jumped.

People began singing the Cougar fight song for the first of what would be about a dozen times before the day was done.

Tension grew as the selection announcement approached.

Cougar players, sitting in a row, became restless. Cowgill began chewing on a Sharpie. Senior forward Ivory Clark sunk into his chair, arms crossed, as if each second were an eternity of unrequited anticipation.

And there was a spontaneous eruption of cheers. Ol' Wazzu was a third seed, headed to Sacramento, to play 14th seeded Oral Roberts.

Thirteen years of frustration suddenly were washed away.

"It feels unbelievable to get that seed and to see your name up there," said Cowgill a few moments later.

"It's amazing to be apart of Cougar history like this and that's why we all came here," Derrick Low said. "To get into the NCAA Tournament is a dream come true."

"This is crazy, it's surreal just seeing our name up there even though we knew we'd be in the tournament," gushed Taylor Rochestie.

As fans swarmed the team, Clark had an additional reason to enjoy the moment.

"It means so much to me to be a senior and go out in the NCAA tournament. So many college careers never end in the NCAA tournament. So I feel extremely fortunate to be one of the few," Clark said. "All the experts had us projected to finish 10th in the Pac-10! It's unbelievable to be in the NCAA tournament."

Kyle Weaver, the all-world wingman, didn't take much time to celebrate.

"Our defense is going to have to step it up with these guys," he said. "Everyone knows it's one and done."

"We have to play the best basketball we can coming into March Madness," he said. "Defense is number one for us and taking advantage of opportunities with good shots will be key."

Added Daven Harmeling, "I'm sure our coaches will have them scouted by tonight. We just want to prepare like crazy because we know they're a formidable opponent and capable of winning."

As the event wound down and conversations turned toward plane tickets to California, Cougar fan Robin Hammond captured the mood well.

"People who were here during the lean-years really appreciate what we have now," she said. "When the Bennetts came, it was like a cloud lifted off of this place and there were no more excuses ... we can beat any team on any given night ... It's a fever that just grabs ya."

Cougar players shared the Bennett sentiments.

"I think all of the awards coach Bennett is getting are absolutely deserved," Cowgill said.

"We love to play for a guy like that," Clark said.

As for Bennett, who played in the Big Dance as a guard at Wisconsin-Green Bay and was an assistant when Wisconsin made it to the Final Four, he offered fatherly advice to his troops, Harmeling said. "Coach said that he's extremely proud of us but this is only the beginning and if we play well we'll hopefully make some noise in this tournament. He just encouraged us to keep our heads on straight and keep playing that tough defense."


* Legendary WSU p.a. man Glenn Johnson announced that athletic director Jim Sterk assured that everyone that they won't have to wait 13 years again for another Big Dance invitation for the Cougs.

* Tony Bennett saluted his father Dick during the proceedings, but concluded his remarks with a "Thanks mom," as proud mother Lynn stood in the back of the room.

* Asked what he knows about Oral Roberts, Dave Harmeling said, "I just know that they knocked off Kansas earlier in the year so they are definitely a dangerous team. As soon as I can get home I'm getting on the internet and looking at their players and try to get a hold of some film on them."

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