Excuse me for not believing it was going to happen.
Hands behind my head, with 30 seconds remaining in the Arizona State game, I really did think it was over. It's not how I would've scripted it to end, and it certainly wasn't how I wanted the seniors to go out in their final game at Friel Court. But it seemed inevitable. An overtime loss to a team after a (somewhat) questionable foul call that bailed out a team that was all but beat.
It's just that I had seen it all before.
I was there for Stanford in 2004. A game where the Cougs had a seven point lead over the undefeated and #1 ranked team in the nation with over a minute to play. They lost. Turnovers were created, foul shots were missed, and the officials gave the ball back to Stanford on the shortest five-second count in modern history. Matt Lottich picked up the ball out of a scramble, fired off a three-pointer, and the rest was history.
I was there for the Maarty Leunen game, back when the Cougs were snakebit against the Oregon Ducks. Leunen got a similar questionable call, and drained two free throws to tie the game under the toughest of circumstances. With Harden's shots Saturday, players are now 5 for 5 in free throw attempts when Beasley Coliseum gets louder than any other time I've heard it. The Ducks ran away in overtime, and WSU was crushed again.
I was there when Dijon Thompson drained an uncontested three-pointer to tie WSU at the buzzer. When Aaron Brooks took three steps before passing to Malik Hairston for the game winner. When Randy Green's senior day ended in an 0-for-7 performance - had any of those shots gone down, the Cougs could've at least forced overtime.
Don't use the "C-" word. Every team blows leads. For every time the Cougs have lost a winnable game, I can think of a time when they pulled out a game they should've lost. It's just as fans we tend to dwell on the painful losses more then the glorious victories. And for my first three years in Pullman, we had more than our fair share of the former.
I came to Pullman in 2003. Simultaneously, Dick Bennett, and a certain up-and-coming assistant coach that happened to be his son took a chance with Washington State. As a result of the six years that followed, I'll finish my time as a student with two degrees, a billion memories and countless games watched from the student section. I've lived and died with my friends and a couple thousand other fans I don't even know. All of whom want to see the same thing.
There was no gradual improvement. The Cougs showed signs of live in 2004, winning seven Pac-10 games. They held course the next year, with the same result in conference. The Cougars fell flat after that, winning only four Pac-10 games in 2005-06. They won two of their last sixteen contests.
And then, as if it were overnight, Cougar basketball came alive. Days after an embarrassing fifteen point loss at Utah, Washington State beat #18 Gonzaga. That one game changed everything. The Cougars were already good, we just didn't know it until that upset. The team went from afterthought to contender. From ne'er-do-well to NCAA tournament squad. It was as surprising as it was incredible, and we rode the wave for two unbelievable years. The double-overtime loss to Vanderbilt didn't even hurt that much. We made it. Only a #1 ranked North Carolina team was able to stop us last March. WSU had arrived.
I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. Suffering through three years of sub-par basketball may not seem like a dream to some, but it's made the past three years so much sweeter. I also got to be a part of the first ZZU CRU - and a proud owner of the now limited edition shirts with the "72" on the back. Waiting outside two hours before the game used to be considered extreme. Now it's a requirement if you want seats anywhere near the court. The ZZU CRU used to have to recruit its members, to the point where prizes were incredibly easy to come by. Now the ZZU CRU has more than enough people seeking it out, and reaping a much smaller pool of rewards.
I've learned to love the bandwagon - for the size, the noise and the commitment. But I still love the diehard fans most. Those of us that show up just as early for a game against Fairleigh-Dickinson or an exhibition against LCSC. Still, I love that we're all pulling for the same team. Cougar fans have never been arrogant about their expectations, and we have been appreciative of the Bennetts from the start. They're grateful for that, and so am I.
I never realized just how loud the ZZU CRU was until I sat on the other side, in the reserved seats. It was incredible. A once half-empty, half-asleep arena had turned into one of the loudest buildings in the country. I was stunned by just how intimidating it was. Half the Coliseum were students, raining down on the court below them. There's nothing else like it on the West Coast.
Of course, it didn't result in a flawless homecourt advantage. I should've learned that sooner. Today's athlete thrives on hate - they learn to love the boos and jeers at a young age. They want to silence the crowd; they could care less about the noise or the distractions or the taunting. They get a crash course in opponent spite as early as high school. Or sooner. Some players do give in, some players get rattled, others just get even more motivated. It doesn't matter - the ZZU CRU is going to try to get in your head regardless.
I loved the ZZU CRU for that. At 23, it's one of the last remaining places where I could still be a kid. I've embarrassed myself plenty of times - yelled things I shouldn't have yelled, said things I wouldn't ever say in front of my kids someday. I also made an ill-advised trip up to the block of seats the Dawg Pack had reserved one year for the Washington game. (As a side note, the police handled the situation very well, and escorted us away before anything had a chance to develop) Still, I got to jump up and down and yell, and participate in the more clever group chants ("OJ did it", and "Beer run Jensen" come to mind). I got to rush the court three times - against Gonzaga in '06, Arizona in '07, and last Saturday. I'll have the memory of high-fiving Klay Thompson after one of the most improbably shots in Cougar history. You can't replace those things.
Sure, there are things I won't miss. Waiting in line for ages in the freezing cold instantly comes to mind. Watching one guy save a baseball team's worth of seats in the row in front of me doesn't seem like the most fun either. Getting punished for going to class on a Thursday, by finding a much worse position in line wasn't cool. Having Parking Services block off Blue lots to students with Blue permits just because it is a game day doesn't really strike me as fair. And the traffic management afterward is as much of a joke now as it was when I got here.
Those things are petty. Once I'm inside the Coliseum, I'm in love with everything but the concession prices. The team, the coaches, the fans, the game. It's one of the key components of being a Coug. There's nothing else like it, and I'm kidding myself if I say that I won't miss it down the road. Heck, there is probably going to be a time where I sneak over from my reserved seats and get back in the heart of the ZZU CRU to relive the experience. Who knows - I may even find my kids saving me a seat there someday.
For the time being, I had one last chance to enjoy it Saturday. I woke up at the crack of eight, forced myself into line, and gutted it out one more time. It was an emotional moment to see Taylor, Daven, Aron, Ryan and Caleb get their recognition as Seniors. There may not be a group of Seniors from top to bottom that have given more effort and more commitment to this program. One of them came 3,000 miles for this opportunity. One of them was even willing to give up his scholarship before his coach told him otherwise.
I told my friends beforehand that I wanted the game to end exactly the way the last football game did. Well, maybe not exactly, because that would mean we'd be down by a nearly improbable margin with time running out.
I was resigned to the fact that it might not have the fairytale ending with 15 seconds left. With four seconds left, I saw a ball fly straight on towards the basket. And then...
Thanks, Friel Court. I didn't know you had it in you.