Eyes of nation focused on Wolf Pack during big sports weekend

1/2/2007 8:00:00 AM

Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Jim Rogers had never felt colder.

Or warmer, for that matter.

Rogers, along with more than 26,000 other fans at Bronco Stadium Sunday night during the MPC Computers Bowl in Boise, Idaho, could see his breath rising in chilled, smoke-like rings.

But that was perfectly all right for Rogers.

As far as he was concerned, watching Nevada's Wolf Pack determinedly pound play-for-play with the five-time national champion Miami Hurricanes was the best form of warmth any Wolf Pack fan could ever have.

"It was a great game and an awful lot of fun," said Rogers reflecting on the weekend's events from his vacation home near Helena, Mont., where the high Tuesday afternoon was a downright balmy 43 degrees – much warmer than the 20-degree temperatures in Boise Sunday evening. "I've never had so many clothes on in all my life. I had four jackets on. I started out with a large jacket, then one a little larger, then a sweater, then (Nevada athletic director) Cary Groth showed up with a huge jacket for me. It was cold, but it was great exposure for the Wolf Pack."

For Rogers and many other Wolf Pack fans like him, the weekend was one to remember.

On Saturday, Dec. 30, in "The Battle in Seattle" at Key Arena in Seattle, Wash., Nevada's 15th-ranked men's basketball team overcame a 14-point first-half deficit to defeat perennial NCAA Tournament Cinderella team Gonzaga, 82-74.

Then, on Sunday night in chilly Boise, the Chris Ault-coached Nevada football team came within a whisker of recording what would've been the program's most significant victory in more than 100 years of football, losing 21-20 to Miami.

Wolf Pack fans would be hard-pressed to find two better back-to-back sporting events in school history, and both events were televised nationally on ESPN.

"We played the University of Miami and for all intents and purposes won the game," Rogers said, noting a couple of close calls that could've gone in Nevada's favor but didn't. "I think it was an absolutely wonderful experience. We were sorry they lost, but what great exposure the program and the university received."

The day before, in surprisingly sunny Seattle, the Wolf Pack put on another memorable performance. Anticipation had been building for weeks – and indeed, perhaps years, as the last time the two teams met had been in the second round of the 2004 NCAA Tournament in the same arena.

Nevada, led by talented junior guard Kirk Snyder, tough-as-nails junior center Kevinn Pinkney and a gangly, coltish freshman center named Nick Fazekas, shocked the second-ranked Zags, 91-72.

Three hours before the 3 p.m. tip-off on Saturday, an overflow crowd of more than 400 alumni and friends from Nevada gathered on the Skyline Level of the Seattle Space Needle. Like a good coach preparing well in advance for a talented opponent, Nevada's Alumni Relations staff had scouted possible Seattle venues in the months preceding the event, said Randy Brown, president of the Nevada Alumni Association.

"It was perfect," said Brown, a 1989 Nevada graduate. "The Space Needle is a Seattle icon, and it was literally only a few yards away from Key Arena. We were told the place could seat only about 350 people, but there was easily more than 400 people there. Everyone was in great spirits.

"It was 'The Wall of the North.'"

Following the alumni event, Pack fans joined about 15,000 other fans in what is believed to be the largest crowd to ever witness a regular-season college basketball game in the state of Washington.

They weren't disappointed.

"You really could feel the energy of the Wolf Pack fans inside Key Arena," said Amy Carothers, director of Alumni Relations at Nevada. "Our fans, though they were fewer in number than Gonzaga, were easily just as loud and energetic."

Added Rogers: "It was a pretty electric atmosphere."

Said Brown: "It was nothing like I've ever experienced. I was there when we beat UW in football (in Seattle in 2003), but this was like no other. It took such a huge commitment for families to pack up their families before they packed up their Christmas trees to go to Seattle, or to Boise, or to both. But it was great. It was like one big family."

"It was touted as a neutral environment, but it was far from neutral with 14,000 fans there for Gonzaga. The amazing thing was the enthusiasm from the Nevada crowd at times drowned out the the Gonzaga crowd," said Rick Reviglio, another Wolf Pack fan who made the trip to Seattle. "Everywhere you turned from our (Reno) airport to the Seattle airport to restaurants and hotels, you saw Nevada Blue."

Nevada, which improved to 12-1 overall, impressed many with its ability to play without Fazekas, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, who fouled out with a little more than five minutes remaining and the score tied.

"I haven't seen Nevada all that often, but they seem to be a tough-minded basketball team," said Bud Withers, who for nearly a decade has been an award-winning college basketball columnist and reporter for the Seattle Times. Withers was at courtside on Saturday. "They played through some very difficult periods. There were a couple of times where I wondered if (Nevada coach Mark Fox) would take a timeout, because the crowd was really getting into the game. But he allowed them to play through it and you can do that with a veteran team ... I look at Nevada, and it's a Sweet 16 team, and maybe with a break or two, a team that could go farther into the tournament than that.

"I was really impressed."

Withers was asked the inevitable question whenever Gonzaga is involved in the conversation.

The Zags over the past eight seasons, have become one of America's favorite teams.

And why not?

They play with unrelenting energy, travel to all corners of the country to battle the nation's elite programs—a road trip to Virginia this week will be the Zags' third trip to the East Coast this season, an unheard of amount of frequent flier miles for a West Coast program—and have one of the nation's finest young coaches in Mark Few. With his closely cropped blonde hair and a face so unlined it could pass for a main street USA sidewalk, Few resembles a preacher's son—which, by the way, he actually is.

So, Withers was asked, how do Nevada's bona fides compare to Gonzaga's? Is Nevada the next Gonzaga? Or is Gonzaga the next Nevada?

The Pack, too, has a youthful coach in the bespectacled Fox, players that are impervious to pressure and a senior star in Fazekas who for all of his awkward looking moving parts—when he runs, think of a reed-thin young man on a unicycle that is teetering on toppling over—could nonetheless be one of the most complete players in college basketball today?

"I would say that I was impressed not only with their starters but with the young kids who came in and gave them, three, four good minutes at a time," said Withers, whose work has been honored by U.S. Basketball Writers Association for its excellence. "On the surface of it, it looks like they're pretty well stocked for the future.

"For the present, I was really impressed. They have that great complement in scoring with Fazekas and (guard Marcelus) Kemp, and they play with a lot of toughness. It was a partisan crowd with the game being in Seattle, but they played like a really good team in a tough environment.

"It was a terrific atmosphere, and it was probably right there with another great Battle of Seattle game we had back in 2003-2004, when a very talented Missouri team that was ranked No. 5 in the country, came in to play (Gonzaga notched a scintillating 87-80 victory in overtime)."

Rogers, who is on the board for the Gonzaga University School of Law, admitted that he was impressed with both teams on Saturday.

"I was going to come up here to Montana for the holidays, but then I talked to (Nevada President) Milt (Glick) and he said, 'Why don't you come up to the basketball game,'" Rogers said. "Needless to say, it was the perfect time to see a great game. I thought it was one of the best games I've ever seen. It was fun. When I said to Milt, 'I'm going down to Boise,' Milt seemed so pleased. He said, 'That's beyond the call of duty.'

"But that's the kind of weekend it was. It was a great sports weekend."

Rogers said the experience – both in Seattle and in Boise – only convinced him further that Nevada is finding a well-earned place in the national collegiate sports consciousness.

It was the coldest of times, and it was also the warmest of times – for Wolf Pack fans everywhere.

"I've never been so cold in my life," Rogers said, adding with a quick chuckle, "I think I'm still shivering. But what an absolutely wonderful weekend it was."


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