A decade later, the ’03 Wildcats squad still brings a smile

Feb 27 2013 - 2:54pm

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Sometimes the best memories are the ones that sneak up and thrill you when you least expect them.

That's sort of what happened 10 years ago today in Cheney, Wash.

See, back then my assignment at the Standard-Examiner was to cover Weber State's men's basketball team, which was a pretty fun gig, I'm not going to lie. That season, coach Joe Cravens' Wildcats ran headlong into a wild, wondrous winning streak.

Weber State went 26-6 that season and won the Big Sky Conference's regular-season and tournament titles.

Next month WSU will honor its 19 championship teams when it celebrates its 50th anniversary weekend, March 8-9 in Ogden.

Of all those title teams, the 2003 squad means the most to me.

Over an amazing 74-day period, it won 17 consecutive games, including 14 in Big Sky play.

It wasn't easy, however. Not by a long shot, especially not on Feb. 27, 2003.

WSU played at Eastern Washington that night and the 'Cats' winning streak arrived in Cheney long before they did. They'd won 12 straight conference games and by that late date each opponent was pumped to knock them off their perch.

No matter how talented, they all seemed to get up for the Wildcats.

As it turned out, Eastern Washington had a talented bunch that season and the Eagles were definitely capable of ending WSU's streak, especially at Reese Court.

Still, as an outside observer who got to witness each game that season, I knew just how good the 'Cats could be. I saw they had a confident swagger and I figured they were going to win that Thursday night at EWU and again a day later at Portland State, giving them a 14-0 record and a regular-season championship.

Turns out I was right and wrong, all at the same time.

For most of the first half and well into the second, Eastern looked like the better team. The Eagles were sharp and hungry and they led 64-58 with about two minutes left to play.

"It was one of those things where you just can't get over the hump," Cravens said afterward. "You make a little run and then they hit one. You're there, you're there, but just can't take that next step. Finally, we got over the hump."

What put them over the hump was that swagger I mentioned earlier. Looking back on it, I see Cravens' guys never lost hope, never lost faith in themselves.

Brad Barton, the heart and soul of that team, had some memorable games as a Wildcat, but none more memorable than this one.

Down by six with time drifting helplessly away, Barton stole an outlet pass and quickly sank a 3-point shot, sparking what turned out to be a 9-0 run.

Later, the team's best player, Jermaine Boyette, put the 'Cats ahead 65-64 with just seconds left. The Eagles threatened one last time but Barton came up with a huge rebound and Nic Sparrow hushed more than 4,000 screaming fans with a couple of free throws.

Final score: Weber State 67, Eastern Washington 64.

Ten years later I can still hear the silence and I smile at the memory, especially of those two plays made by Barton, the grittiest player I've ever covered.

Sadly, in October 2011, Brad died of complications related to Type-1 diabetes. He was just 31 years old.

I went back and looked up the story I filed 10 years ago tonight. The quote Barton gave me after the game still gives me chills.

"I never doubt," he said. "I'm a confident human being. We've done it so many times now. I have so much faith in my teammates and in myself because we've come back from big deficits before. We're just a stronger, tougher team than we were in the past."

Jim Burton is the Standard-Examiner's sports columnist. He can be reached at 801-625-4265 or at jburton@standard.net. He tweets at http://twitter.com/jmb247

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