WASHINGTON STATE, gearing up for a first-round National Invitation Tournament contest with Long Beach State on Wednesday, is no stranger to the NIT. The Cougars have played in the 32-team field four previous times. Their best showing came in 1995, when two of the all-time greats in program history put on a show that led the Cougars to the tourney’s quarterfinals.
Mark Hendrickson and Isaac "Ike" Fontaine helped fuel a three-year stretch of NCAA and NIT tourney action for Washington State but it was the middle year of the run -- 1995 – where they found the most post-season success.
The Cougars, who had gone to the Big Dance the year before under Kelvin Sampson, finished the '95 regular season at 18-12 and tied for fifth in the Pac-10 under first-year coach Kevin Eastman. Even before their deep NIT run, the season was a head turner for numerous reasons.
Indeed, the Cougs defeated five teams who were ranked in the top 25 (and nearly grabbed a sixth in a double-overtime loss to Arizona). They averaged a school record 83.5 points per game. And they led the nation in field goal percentage (.517).
Leading the way were Hendrickson, a junior forward from Mount Vernon, and Fontaine, a sophomore guard from Sacramento. Hendrickson was a first-team all-conference selection who averaged 16.1 points and 9 rebounds a game that season, while Fontaine averaged 18.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists per outing.
The supporting cast wasn’t too shabby either. Junior transfer Shaman Antrum (13.7 ppg) was voted the Pac-10’s Newcomer of the Year and sophomore Donminic Ellison set a school assists record, averaging 6.4 per game. In the post, sophomore Tavares Mack of Seattle averaged 4.8 rebounds and 8.6 points, while freshman Carlos Daniel and seniors Rob Corkrum and David Vik shared the rest of the load.
When the NIT came calling, the Cougars were ready.
They hosted Texas Tech in the first round and took down the Red Raiders 94-82 as Fontaine poured in 32 points and played stifling defense. Hendrickson scored 19 and pulled down 6 rebounds. Round two put the Cougs on the road to Normal, Illinois, and a match up with Illinois State. The game was a nailbiter, with the Cougs winning 83-80. All five WSU starters scored in double figures, with Hendrickson registering a double-diouble and Fontaine scoring 23 and driving to the hoop for what proved to be the game winner with 30 seconds left.
That victory put them into the quarterfinals, one game away from a trip to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Final Four.
On its face, the quarterfinal matchup looked like a favorable one for the Cougs. The opponent was little-known Canisius College, a Jesuit-run school in Buffalo that had racked up 21 wins against the likes of Niagra, Fairfield and Manhattan.
More than 9,000 fans – vocal and energized – filled "The Aud" in Buffalo, marking the largest home crowd in Canisius history. The Golden Griffins jumped out early and eventually built an 11-point lead. The Cougs cut it to 72-68, but the tide turned irrevocably toward Canisius when a controversial technical foul – which replays showed to be completely bogus – was called on Daniel. Canisius won 89-80, powered by a breathtaking 27 makes in 30 shots from the foul line. For the Cougs, Fontaine and Hendrickson led the way with 20 and 19 points, respectively. The Griffins then lost in the semi-finals to eventual champion Virginia Tech.
Hendrickson and Fontaine would have one more year together, 1995-96. Hendrickson missed much of it with an injury, likely costing the Cougs a March Madness invite, but they did go to the NIT again. They defeated Gonzaga in Pullman in the first round, 92-73, with Hendrickson scoring 24 and Fontaine 21. Five days later in Lincoln, the road ended in a 82-73 loss to Nebraska. Hendrickson had another double-double and Fontaine scored 21. And thus ended one of the great tandems of talent in WSU history.
Hendrickson went on to the NBA the following season and would spend four years there before starting his decade-long career as a Major League pitcher. He's currently a Baltimore Oriole.
Fontaine, a year younger, had one more season in crimson. The Cougs were a shadow of their former selves in that final campaign, leading to a drought that didn't end until the arrival of Bennett Ball, but Fontaine shattered every scoring record in the book by the time he left. He went on to spend many years playing pro ball, including a stint with Memphis in the NBA, and now is back home in Sacramento where he works as a CPA.
Fittingly, both Hendrickson and Fontaine are members of the Pac-10 Basketball Hall of Honor. Hendrickson was inducted in 2008 and Fontaine in 2009.
NOTABLE COUGAR NIT NOTES:
WSU is 4-4 in its NIT history.
The Cougars have played three home games in the NIT over the years, with the average attendance being 5,396.
Fontaine is WSU's career NIT leader in points and steals, Hendrickson in rebounds and free thows, Antrum in three-pointers, Daniel in blocked shots and Elliison in assists.
For the complete 2011 NIT bracket breakdown
For tickets to Wednesday's 7 p.m. game in Pullman against Long Beach State, click here.
INTERESTING NIT HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE:
In 1970, Marquette turned down an NCAA Tournament invitation because head coach Al McGuire thought the selection committee was playiing favorites with geographical placements. Mind you, only 20-some teams were asked to dance in those days, so an invite was truly coveted. But principal is princiapl and McGuire opted to take his team to the NIT -- and they won the title. All the exposure and publicty in New York more than offset the decision to turn down the NCAA, he said.