Six games ago, Colorado State forward Pat Durham wrote "WAC Champs, '89" on the back of his gym shoes. Four games ago, he began telling people the Rams were going to make history. Saturday afternoon they did, as the Rams stopped BYU 89-72 in the Marriott Center.
The victory - coupled with New Mexico's loss to Hawaii - gave CSU its first WAC championship in school history.It has been a long wait. The last league basketball championship CSU won was in 1961 when the Rams tied for the Skyline Conference title.
To find an outright title, one must go even farther back. In 1954, CSU Coach Boyd Grant was still playing at Snow College when CSU won its last title outright.
"This was a team that . . . I think they were better than my coaching," said Grant. "They were a team that really wanted to win it."
Several weeks ago, things didn't look especially good after BYU had drubbed the Rams by 15 in Fort Collins. At one stage they were 4-4 in the WAC. But they went on a nine-game win streak, the final victory coming against the Cougars.
"Six games ago the coach told us we had six steps to go to win the WAC. Today was the last one," said Durham.
Meanwhile, Durham had begun telling CSU fans four games ago that this was the year for a championship. "Pat said four games ago we were going to win it, and when Pat makes up his mind, I feel a lot better," said Grant. "I think I'll ask him about the WAC tournament on the way home."
The win gave CSU a 12-4 league record, 20-8 overall. New Mexico was 11-4 going into Saturday night's game against Hawaii and could do no better than tie the Rams. CSU will go into next week's WAC tournament as the No. 1 seed.
BYU finished the regular season at 7-9 in league play and 14-14 overall. The Cougars finished in fifth place and will play Hawaii Thursday at 7 p.m. in the WAC tournament.
While CSU was on its way to an historic day, the Cougars made some history of their own. Center Michael Smith's 30 points put him ahead of Devin Durrant and behind Danny Ainge as the school's No. 2 all-time scorer. He also made five-straight free throws to pass former Ute Jeff Jonas as the career (WAC games only) free-throw percentage leader.
But while Smith was on his record pace, he couldn't carry the day alone. Marty Haws contributed 14 points and Steve Schreiner 12, but forward Andy Toolson was noticeably quiet. Toolson scored just seven points and took only seven shots.
"Our team is structured so that we can't go too many other places (than to Haws, Smith or Toolson)," said BYU Coach Ladell Andersen. "If we happen to have a night where one or two of the players aren't hitting, we're probably not going to win."
The question of winning was still in doubt with 14 minutes to go. The Cougars led 40-38 at halftime, but an early second-half run, led by Durham, put CSU up 50-44. BYU cut the lead to 52-48 with 13:15 left.
"Coach Grant told them before the game, `This is for you guys; it's your chance to win,' " said CSU sports information director Gary Ozzello. "He said, `You guys have a chance to do something nobody else has ever done.' "
Although BYU shot an impressive 55 percent for the game, the Cougars were up against a team with an attitude. CSU made a phenomenal 67 percent of its shots, including 75 percent in the second half. The Rams committed just one turnover in the first 35 minutes of the game, before struggling at the end in the face of a full-court BYU press.
"They came ready to play. You could see it in their eyes," said BYU's Smith.
Things began to unravel for the Cougars with 13 minutes remaining. Guard Jamie Hines buried a 3-pointer to put the Rams ahead by seven. From then on CSU began eating away the time by passing the ball until only a few seconds remained on the shot clock.
The Rams moved farther ahead by making good on 17 of 18 free throws down the stretch, beating the Cougars at their own game - foul shooting. "We tried to turn it into something of a free-throw thing at the end, but we were too far down," said Andersen.
Durham led all scorers with 31 points. The Rams will play Thursday night at 9:30 against the No. 8 seed in the WAC.
After the game, Andersen and Grant, who have been coaches in the West for several decades together, embraced. "They deserved to win," said Andersen. "We've had a lot of days in the sun, and CSU is having theirs. There's nothing wrong with that in athletics."
Particularly if you wait almost 30 years for it.