A Cinderella Story

March 14, 2007

Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment of a four-part series chronicling the Washington State men's basketball team's four trips to the NCAA Tournament in 1941, 1980, 1983 and 1994.

2007 will mark the fifth trip to the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship for Washington State. The Cougars were selected as the No. 3 seed in the East Region and will play No. 14 seed Oral Roberts in a first round game at Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, March 15. Tip is at 11:30 a.m.

Today's Feature: After the 1983 season, the Washington State basketball program found itself on the outside looking in when it came NCAA Tournament time, but the streak ended when the calendar turned to 1994.

By Conor Laffey
Washington State Athletic Media Relations

It was a true Cinderella story.

For the 1993-94 Cougars, Cinderella was the season itself, but the only dancing Washington State University would be doing consisted of defensive slides and jump shots.

With Cinderella playing the role of the season itself in this story, it still needed to be determined as to who would play the other roles.

Their fairy godmother? WSU Head Coach Kelvin Sampson, who was in his seventh, and as it tuned out, final season as coach. Entering the 1993-94 campaign, Sampson had led the Cougars to three consecutive winning seasons, highlighted with the 1991-92 season of 22 victories and a trip to the NIT.

However, the best was yet to come for Sampson and his Cougars.

Sampson's quest for the 1993-94 season? Ending an 11-year period where the Cougars went without a bid at the NCAA Championship.

The evil step-sister in this story? The Boston College Eagles, but more on them later.

The mice helping getting Cinderella ready for the big dance? The players themselves. Even though they were just mice helping Cinderella get ready for the dance they played like horses that would get their prized princess a carriage ride to the tournament.

Senior point guard Tony Harris and his 13.3 points per game average. Harris started in every game for the Cougars during his final year and led WSU with his emotional style of play and acrobatic dunks.

'Without Tony Harris we aren't here (NCAA Tournament),' Sampson said of his star guard. 'Without Tony Harris we are in the NIT or something.'

Harris didn't have the lead role all to himself, he had the supporting cast of Mark Hendrickson and Eddie Hill both who averaged double-digits points per game. Hendrickson, a Mount Vernon, Wash. native, averaged 7.4 rebounds per game and 1.2 blocks per game. Hill was known for his three-point shooting as he set the career mark and single-season record during his last year as a Cougar.

The Cougars also received support from freshman Isaac Fontaine, who at times could scorch a team with his hot hand. A starting guard who garnered many accolades throughout his first year including Pac-10 All-Freshman accolades. Harris dropped 33 against a Jud Heathcoate coached Michigan State team and proved he could do it against Pac-10 foes, which he demonstrated when he caught on fire for 21 points versus Arizona State.

With the characters in places all that was yet to be determined was the story line itself, especially the finale. An obstacle in front of WSU and its hopes of a Cinderella finish to its season was the fact they hadn't been to the tournament since the 1982-83 season.

The team was balanced with fresh young talent with the play of Hendrickson and Fontaine and veterans Hill and Harris making WSU a tough squad to play against.

Tony Harris

The previous year, WSU lost six Pac-10 games by a total 17 points and also knocked off every conference team at least once with the exception of regular season champion Arizona.

As he embarked on the 1994 season, the first thing Sampson had to do was make sure his players believed they could win. Executing their goal of qualifying for the NCAA Championship would come afterward.

'This is the most talent since I've been here, without a doubt,' senior Hill said of his former team at the beginning of the season. 'The sky's the limit. It's definitely an NCAA Tournament team.'

WSU started the season with something to prove. They stormed off to a 7-0 start with notable wins over Marquette, Michigan State and Alabama. WSU's confidence was gaining, but then hit a speed bump when they faced off against Bob Knight's 12th ranked Indiana Hoosiers.

Indiana would go on a 12-2 run just before halftime and a 15-3 run with six minutes in change remaining to close out the Cougars, 79-64.

The Pac-10 portion of the season began with WSU holding a 10-2 record. The Cougars dropped their conference opener to No. 24 California, 70-54, and would go on to fall in two more Pac-10 games against Stanford and No. 5 UCLA.

The Cougars rebounded and captured four consecutive games. WSU would then sweep Oregon State, Washington and Arizona State before splitting with Oregon.

With two home games remaining in its schedule, WSU would face teams it lost to earlier in the season. The Cougars sat on an 18-9 record and needed the final two games to burst out of the bubble and put on the glass slipper.

WSU would lean on Harris to get ready for the big ball. Harris led five Cougars in double digits with 18 points to lift WSU over Stanford, 77-71, setting the stage for a win-your-in game against nationally-ranked California.

Against the 16th ranked Bears, WSU would again lean on its seniors, this time it was senior guard Hill. Hill had a season-high 27 points and hit seven clutch three-pointers to knock off the Bears in front of 11, 019 fans at Friel Court during WSU's spring break.

It was at that time the Cougars secured a spot on the national spotlight. The Cinderella story was put in place and the Cougars received their bid to the NCAA Championship.

However, ninth-seeded Boston College brought midnight earlier than the eighth-seeded Cougars would have liked. The Eagles eclipsed WSU in the first round game, 67-64. The Eagles would go on to upset top-seeded North Carolina and fifth-seeded Indiana, before falling to Florida in the Elite 8.

The Cinderella season was over for the WSU, but Cougar basketball was back on the map. The season laid the foundation for future players and seasons to come and give Cougar fans a great memory of WSU basketball.

Sampson would leave WSU after the season as he took a job at Oklahoma. The mice that helped Cinderella get ready for the ball graduated. Hendrickson and Fontaine were the main actors remaining from the cast, but they were unable to take the Cougars back to the dance.

The 1994 NCAA tournament team may not have a lot in common with this year's Cougar squad. The 1994 team's roster consisted of many players from the state of Washington while this year's roster has one. This year's Cougars did not have to wait for the last game to see if they would qualify for the tournament.

However, both teams were nationally recognized for their tenacious defense and at times sharp three-point shooting. The other comparison between the two teams, each led Cinderella like seasons.

The Cougars are now led by Tony Bennett, who resembles more of a Prince Charming rather than a fairy godmother. That role goes to his father Dick Bennett who helped bring WSU out of the depths and made it into a nationally competitive program again.

The new mice consist of Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver who were at one time unknowns on the WSU campus, but now can't walk to class without giving a high five to a fellow fan.

No matter what way you look at it, this Cinderella story is long overdue for WSU.

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