Waking the echoes of Cougar hoops glory past

TALK ABOUT A pleasant surprise. Saturday evening I had the good fortune of being transported back to a place I hadn't been since the early and mid-1990s. Fond memories of Ike Fontaine, Fred Ferguson, Mark Hendrickson and Bennie Seltzer danced through my head as I stumbled across FoxSportsNet's live coverage of the Cougars' 98-76 victory over Washington.

For the first time in ages, the Cougars were fun to watch. Junior guard Marcus Moore, making a surprise appearance after missing more than a month to clean up bone fragments in his ankle, was absolutely electric.

He played 26 minutes and scored 23 points -- including a pair of three-pointers late in the game that put a dagger in the Huskies' hearts.

And the 98 points the Cougars scored was the most since Ike & Co. scorched Arizona State for 103 in March of 1996. It was also the most points any Cougar team ever has scored against the Huskies.

This was Cougar basketball the way it used to be. The way it was when Steve Harriel and Craig Ehlo were lighting it up in the early 80s. The way James Donaldson, Terry Kelly and Don Collins rode roughshod in the late-70s. And the way Hendrickson and Ike did it in the 1990s.

The Cougars had a certain intensity, said UW coach Lorenzo Romar -- an edginess, if you will --- that the Huskies couldn't match.

This was inspired ball. Aggresive drives to the hoop. Good passes. Solid defense. A spirited, late-game dunk by Milton Riley.

There were just a little more than 3,000 hearty souls ringing Friel Court, but they sounded enthused --- enthused like they used to be when they were 9,000 strong and cheering the Cougars to 18 wins in 1990-91, 22 in 1991-92 and so on right through that last look at the sun in 1995-96 when the Cougs won 17.

There was a time when there was no such thing as stumbling across a Cougar basketball game on TV. In the glory days, from 1990-96 when the Cougar men were a lock to at least make a run at the NIT, those rare TV games were a treat that you branded on your calendar in bold letters.

But now, after seven successive campaigns at or near the Pac-10 cellar, the bloom has faded mightily. The stands are mostly empty. You can almost hear the long-disconnected among us wondering if Chris Crosby and Carlos Daniel are still in uniform.

It's so bad that the Cougars, with just two wins in Pac-10 play and a 7-18 overall record, won't qualify for the conference tournament even if they close out with Ws this week against the L.A. schools.

But Saturday night was something special.

And maybe, just maybe, it'll be the spark that gets this program on its way back to respectability.

Maybe this game will be like the season-ending upset victory over Washington in 1975. The Cougars had a third-year head coach by the name of George Raveling back then. They hadn't won a conference game the whole season. And Raveling had but five conference victories in his two previous years.

That game was a donnywork, won in the final minute when Marty Giovacchini threaded a miracle to giant Steve Puidokas in the low post to put the Cougars ahead for good. Edgar Jeffries almost leapt out of his Addidas when the buzzer sounded.

Local lore is that Husky coach Marv Harshman told Raveling during their post-game handshake that Raveling had just saved himself a job.

The Cougars would go onto win at least 19 games in each of the next three seasons.

Can Paul Graham's successor pull off the same feat?

And don't forget Mr. Moore. A 6-foot-6 dynamo, he'll be back in 2003-04. He's a major talent who can carry a team on his back, as he showed Saturday night.

In addition, Randy Green, Thomas Kelati and Chris Schlatter all return next year. So do Justin Bellegarde and Ezenwa Ukeagu, a pair of bangers from the JC ranks, who figure to be much improved with this year of Division I seasoning under their belts.

The Pac-10, top to bottom, is tougher than it was in the 1970s, so the road back won't be easy.

On Saturday, though, Marcus Moore and the Cougars woke the echoes of possibility. For the first time in a long while, there appeared to be light at the end of the tunnel. Only time will tell if it was an aberration or milestone.

But the mere thought of rekindling the glory is enough to keep this old Cougar watching those TV listings more closely come next hoop season.

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