Riley Grabau and his teammates never thought the dream was over. If they had, the Mountain West Conference basketball tournament title they just captured was truly a miracle.
And the NCAA Tournament appearance that MWC title guaranteed the Wyoming mens basketball team? A Mega Millions lottery hit.
The Cowboys had lost five of their final eight games of the regular season, entering the Mountain West Championship tournament with a 22-9 mark — certainly the best of the four years Grabau had attended the school but nowhere near a lock for getting into the Big Dance.
For all intents and purposes — further solidified on Selection Sunday with Colorado State and its 27-6 mark not good enough for the seeding committee — the Cowboys needed to win the tournament in order to get in.
That’s exactly what they did.
Wyoming mowed through the top two seeds, Boise State in the semifinals and San Diego State in the finals, to earn a trip to Seattle for an East Regional game against Northern Iowa on Friday.
“We just focused on the next game, and then the next, and that’s something we weren’t really doing at the end of the regular season,” said Grabau, a Boulder High grad. “Our big plan through that slump was to try and stay connected, stay together. Make sure that we’re all on the same page.
“It was really important to stay connected, and the ball bounced our way a couple times in the conference tourney. All the talk of the NCAA Tournament, yeah it’s there, but we tuned that down and focused on beating (Boise and San Diego State).”
The Cowboys started four seniors this year, including Grabau, Derek Cooke Jr., Charles Hankerson and Larry Nance Jr. Having won just 18 games last year, Wyoming was picked to finish sixth in the conference prior to the season.
But a 7-0 start that included a blowout win at Colorado (56-33) sparked Wyoming to heights it hadn’t seen in several years. Their 25 wins is the most the program has seen since 1987-88, and the Cowboys hadn’t made the tournament field since 2001-02.
No matter what happens from here, getting into the tournament has already fulfilled a lot of dreams for Grabau from when he first decided to go to UW.
“This is our first time in awhile, and my first time and something I’ve dreamed about,” he said. “It’s going to be a special moment for me and for my teammates, and we’re all excited. It’s always fun to get to play more basketball in March.”
The matchup between Wyoming and Northern Iowa is a No. 12-vs.-No. 5 battle, with the Panthers (30-3) winning the Missouri Valley Conference championship and having cracked the AP Top 10 as late as March 9. The game at KeyArena in Seattle is scheduled to begin at 11:40 a.m. MDT.
Of course, Grabau has upset on his mind.
“Northern Iowa is going to be real tough, and they’re really well coached,” Grabau said. “We’re going to have to be on our ‘A’ game in order to get the win.”
Of note, Grabau currently leads all of Division I in free throw percentage at .939 (92 for 98). He also leads Wyoming in average minutes per game (33.8), 3-pointers made and attempted (59 for 162). He averaged 9.1 points per game this year.
Leading the nation in a statistical category is something he said he’ll probably be able to reflect on down the road with more pride, but the team accomplishments and the possibilities of making some noise in the greatest tournament in sports is what really matters right now.
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