Reflecting on 1995-97 ISU hoops
A fresh look fell over the 1995-96 Iowa State Cyclones Men's Basketball team. Gone were first and second round picks, Loren Meyer and Fred Hoiberg. So, too, was 95% of the scoring and rebounding from the year before. This was to be a new era in Cyclone basketball. Four transfers would help usher in Coach Tim Floyd's second season in Ames, and appropriately, the school decided to put out a new spinning bird logo. Nothing could be more different from the success the seniors from the prior class had left behind.
Every preseason magazine had Iowa State pegged for a last place finish, and who could blame them? The only returning player with experience was junior PG Jacy Holloway, who wasn't known as a scorer. That year's recruiting class was very similar to the current Iowa State roster of 2011. Four transfers, two from the junior college ranks; Shawn Bankhead and Kenny Pratt, and two from other Division I Universities; Kelvin Cato and Dedric Willoughby. Together, this core would prove the preseason prognosticators, and the nation, that they were a team to be reckoned with.
"My path to Iowa State dates back quite a ways," said Kenny Pratt. "When I was in 6th or 7th grade, one of my older sisters attended Iowa State University. One summer she brought me back an Iowa State basketball uniform, and from way back then, it was like I was born into becoming a Cyclone. It just so happens that Tim Floyd was recruiting me out of high school when he was at the University of New Orleans. I didn't sign with him, but opted for Ball State University. I was a Prop 48 player at Ball State and ended up staying for a year before transferring to Eastern Utah Junior College out west.
Coach Floyd was very good friends with Jerry Krause who was the GM at the Bulls here in Chicago. I ran into Jerry, and he told me that it would be in my best interest to go to Iowa State and learn under Coach Floyd. Already knowing the history of Iowa State from when my sister attended school, it was a no brainer.
Shawn [Bankhead] was at Southern Idaho, and I was at Eastern Utah. I'd gotten to know Shawn by playing against one another and he told me that he was going to Iowa State. I thought it would be a good situation, to have a tough guy like Shawn on your team. It just so happens that we both signed in the early signing period to become Cyclones."
"Tim Floyd recruited me from the College of Southern Idaho," said Shawn Bankhead. "I had Washington State from the Pac-10 recruiting me, as well as Providence, and others, but I took my visit to Iowa State that summer and choose them. I'd known Kenny for awhile, and knew he was being recruited by Iowa State as well. We were in the same conference, and played against each other. We matched up on the court many times, and grew to become good friends. During that process of deciding which college to transfer to, we were both in communications, asking each other what we were going to do. It just so happened that we both decided to go to Iowa State and it was a great fit."
"I'd known Coach Floyd since I was 16 years old, and knew that I was going to New Orleans to play for him early on," said Dedric Willoughby. "I had received letters from other schools such as Arkansas, who had just won a National Championship at the time, but I wasn't highly recruited by any means. There were four of us whom all knew each other and grew up with each other, which eventually signed with New Orleans that fall. And times were good; they were routinely in the top 25 and playing good basketball.
My freshmen year I played in the first five games and suffered a knee injury which caused me to miss the rest of the season. I was able to get a medical redshirt year. At the end of that year, Coach Floyd left for Iowa State. During that spring semester I'd had some problems, stopped going to class and dropped out. When Coach Floyd took the position at Iowa State, he'd given me a path to follow him, but I had to complete some things. He put me on a path to transfer to Indian Hills Community College. I was given a second opportunity and wanted to make the best of it. So I enrolled at Indian Hills, paid my own tuition, and eventually earned my Associates Degree. That allowed me to transfer to Iowa State and be reunited with Coach Floyd."
And then there was Kelvin Cato, who sat out the second half of the last semester the prior season, due to NCAA rule. Cato was seventh in the nation in blocked shots as a sophomore at South Alabama before enrolling at Iowa State. Combine his inside presence with an experienced PG who already had two years of experience at running the offense and you've got a strong nucleus to make some noise.
"We had a choice in 1995 to go out and sign high school players, and start with young freshmen in the Big 8 Conference, or to try and win immediately," said Tim Floyd. "After consultation with [then Athletic Director] Gene Smith, and [then Iowa State President] Martin Jischke, who both wanted freshmen, we told them that the important thing for them to understand was that we weren't going to get the same freshmen as Roy Williams, Norm Stewart, and Eddie Sutton were getting. As I followed [those recruits] in their homes, I saw that they were going to get the best kids, and we would get the second best ones. Gene and Martin said, 'our guys will get better', and I said their guys will get better also, and Iowa State will always remain where it's been. What I'd love to see us do is get the best players available, which we feel like can compete against those guys this year. And as we win, and the recruits got more familiar with us winning, we would be able to go out and get a better [freshmen] player.
These players were lightly recruited players. Shawn Bankhead, which still might be the best defender that I'd ever coached, was being recruited by Washington State, when [then assistant coach] Gar Forman, convinced me that he was good enough.
Kenny Pratt was a guy which we felt wasn't being recruited because he was undersized. He was a 6'3" power forward who was really 6'2 ½" who couldn't play above the rim consistently, but had the skill level and as much strength as any of the 6'8" or 6'9" guys we were recruiting, but couldn't get.
I'd had the opportunity to watch Kelvin Cato play for about 12 minutes during his freshmen year at South Alabama. [South Alabama Head Coach] Ronnie Arrow had taken Kelvin off the streets of Atlanta. In Ronnie's mind it wasn't working out so he released him. Because we'd had success at New Orleans taking 3 young men who'd never played high school ball, we took a flyer on Kelvin. All I saw was what we'd seen in [former New Orleans star] Ervin Johnson. He was big, tall, long, a guy who could run, and block shots. So we decided to take a chance because those kind of athletes are hard to find. We'd beaten Lynn College out of Boca Raton, FL for Kelvin.
Dedric was another young man who wasn't highly recruited out of high school. We'd seen Dedric at a team camp at the University of New Orleans. He didn't play much, and was the 4th guard, on a great team. I'll never forget that when I left to come to Iowa State, his mother called and chewed me out saying when I recruited him; I said I'd look after her son. She said he was going to follow me up at Iowa State, and I didn't really want him. I thought, Gosh, a fourth guard at New Orleans, how is this going to transfer to beating Kansas? But Dedric went to a Junior College for a year, got his grades up, didn't play, and came over to Iowa State as a much improved player. Gar Forman again said he had to take this guy because he was better than the guys we were recruiting. And he became one of the great players in Iowa State History. The stat I remember about him was that he'd made more free throws during his senior year, than anyone in the Big XII had attempted.
Jacy was a guy we'd inherited. He'd come to Iowa State the year before under Johnny Orr. I'm so glad we had him. He's a guy we always tried to recruit over. I hadn't played with many white PG at that time, and didn't see many in the NBA. So we signed a guy every year, and every year Jacy was there to beat him out. And now, at the University of Texas El Paso, I'm still trying to find another Jacy Holloway. He was an absolute winner, and a great athlete, who never made a mistake on the floor, and could guard guys like Jacque Vaughn who appeared to be faster than him. He could also make every open shot. If I had a regret, it would be not letting him shoot enough. He knew how to put winning in front of everything else, and could always make a free throw late in the game."
So did the fact that the media & preseason magazines were picking them to finish last in the Big 8, help motivate the team in the off season?
"Sure gave us a lot of motivation," said Willoughby. "We felt like nobody knew us or our backgrounds, so how could they pick us to finish last in the conference? I mean, I can understand because we'd never played together. Both Cato and myself hadn't played for entire year, and Kenny and Shawn were coming from Junior College. We'd only really returned one starter from the year before in Jacy. Our motivation cry that entire season was to not only let the Big 8 know, but the world know we were for real. We even had a saying heading into that season. It was Big 8 U.F.U. and that stood for Big 8 You… Well you can figure out the rest. But yes we had a chip on our shoulder. I mean we had no expectations on us at all heading into that year. We thought to ourselves that if we worked hard, and listened to what the coaches were teaching us, that we could be successful."
"We read the magazines, and read how they picked us last in the Big 8 coming into that year," said Bankhead. "We knew we had to prove our play. Coming from Atlanta, Chicago, New Orleans, and myself from California, we gelled on and off the court. We were a tight group."
"Coach Floyd brought in a group of guys who were determined to make a name for themselves," said Pratt. "Each of us had our own accolades coming in, and that's what a lot of people didn't understand. Those that picked us to finish last didn't understand that we weren't garbage players. We just had situations in life that forced us to go to a junior college or transfer to a new setting. Coach Floyd knew what he had. I think he just down played it for the media."
The team started the year on fire, going 11-2 to begin the season. But there was one game early in that season, which gave the team confidence and the feeling like they had something special on their hands. A 70-66 double OT victory at Wyoming on December 16th was Kelvin Cato's coming out party. He grabbed 18 rebounds in his first game as a Cyclone, going against future NBA star Theo Ratliff for most of the game.
"The double overtime game early in the year at Wyoming was a difficult game," said Jacy Holloway. "That was a huge game for us, in that it gave us confidence early in the season."
"Every team we played that year was exciting because we didn't know what to expect," said Pratt. "Loren [Meyer] and Freddy [Hoiberg] did a hell of a job the year before. And when they were gone, we came in and knew we had to work our butt off every night and do whatever possible to get a victory. It was all about the W in the win column. Whatever we did, it was trying our best to win the game."
The 1995-96 squad went on to finish 24-9 and earn a second place finish in the Big 8 Conference regular season. But all bets were off when the Cyclones defeated both Nebraska and Missouri in the first two rounds of the Big 8 Tournament in Kansas City. The stage was set for the Big 8 Championship game against the top seeded Kansas Jayhawks and All-Americans Jacque Vaughn and Raef LaFrentz.
With the Big 8 conference expanding by four teams the next year, creating the Big XII, this would be Iowa States last opportunity to capture the conference championship. The first in school history. It was David verses Gollith in many eyes around the country. Iowa States group of unknowns against a perennial top 10 school in Kansas. A nationally televised audience watched as Kelly Packard and Jim Nance called the game on CBS the afternoon of Sunday, March 10th, 1996.
"As long as we played hard, and followed the game plan Coach Floyd laid out, we felt we had a chance to win the game," said Pratt. "As long as we continued to play within the system, we had confidence that we could win any game in front of us. Looking back on the season, Cato and I were talking about the losses we had, with two of them being to Kansas. We had to figure out what we were doing wrong and fix it. And we felt like we weren't being aggressive enough with them during the season."
"Leading up to that game I had a lot of emotions running through my mind because they'd already beat us twice earlier in the year," said Bankhead. "This was our chance to get our rematch on the biggest stage, the championship game."
Kansas, down 8 late in the game, rallied to take the lead with 1:10 remaining. Running the offense on the other end of the floor, a key field goal was made by someone who wasn't necessarily known for his shooting.
"We were coming off a time out, and coach drew up a play that we'd run successful all year," said Holloway. "The play was actually drawn up to give Kenny Pratt an open look at the basket. If the defense starts to drop off to help guard Kenny, his first option was to go to Dedric on the wing. It just so happened that my man helped on defense and Kenny kicked it to me. I really didn't think I'd be taking the shot because Kenny had a knack of getting to the rim whenever he wanted. So when he passed me the ball, I tried to concentrate on getting myself ready. The ball felt good leaving my hands. I'm glad it went in."
Holloway's three point shot gave the Cyclones a 1 point lead. However, Kansas goes down and makes two free throws, to put them back up by one. With 5.5 seconds remaining, Kansas' Jacque Vaughn fouls Dedric Willoughby on the in-bounds play. An 80% free throw shooter, Willoughby calmly steps to the line to shoot a 1 & 1. And gets to live the moment every kid dreams about while playing basketball in their driveway growing up.
"When Dedric stepped to the line during the last seconds of that game, I knew both free throws were money," said Pratt. "He was our money man all season long. Earlier in the year, he was our scoring leader while the rest of us were trying to figure out our role in the system. It was a big relief having him on our team to begin the season and carry us a little. So when I saw he was at the line, there was no question that he was going to make both of those shots, and give us a chance to win the game."
"To be honest with you, I thought - Why me," said Willoughby. "I've gone over that exact scenario over and over again in my head. Once I got to the line, I knew I was going step up and make both of those shots. We wanted it, and probably more so than Kansas did. I've prepared for that moment all my life. After long 3-4 hour practices growing up, being tired, broken down, and emotionally drained, I used to have to end the day by making two free throws. If I missed them I'd have to run 10 suicide sprints, and try again. So I'd envisioned being in that particular situation as long as I can remember. So I knew I was going to make those free throws. For us to come into the season, picked last in the league, and fight all the way to the end, and become the final Big 8 Champions. That was the only way which that story could end."
Kansas' Jacque Vaughn missed a running shot going away from the basket in the final seconds of the game, and just like that, a team nobody expected to be competitive in the league, ended up becoming the first Iowa State Cyclone team in 89 years to be named conference champions.
"It was a signature win for our school at that time," said Floyd. "Iowa State had never won a championship up until that point, either regular season or tournament championship. So it was one of my more memorable games during my tenure. There were a lot of great performances by a lot of players. But what really sticks out to me was how it ended. We committed a foul with 7 seconds to go which allowed Kansas to take a 1 point lead. We inbound the ball and Dedric was fouled 75 ft away from the goal with 3 seconds to go. Dedric made both free throws, and we were able to protect the win at the end of the game.
The post game press conference, I remember being out in the waiting room, and listening to Roy Williams finish his conference. Roy blamed the loss on the officials saying that the officials should never make a call with under 4 seconds left in a game. So when I took the stage, my comments were that I was a young coach, and learned a great lesson listening to the great Roy Williams, in that it was OK to commit a foul with 7 seconds to go in the ball game, which gave Kansas the lead, but it wasn't OK to commit a foul with 3.6 seconds remaining. And the officials should have let the play go and the foul go. I felt like Roy's comments had taken away from what was a great achievement in our schools history at that time."
"That victory was big because it was the last ever Big 8 Championship and we finished as the last ever Big 8 Champions," said Bankhead. "Nobody can ever take that away from us. And when we got back to Ames, the Iowa State fans had packed Hilton for a special ceremony. And to be picked last preseason, and coming home a champion, that is something nobody can ever take away."
"Cutting down the nets was a great feeling," said Holloway. "We'd always had a great crowd down there the previous two years I'd played. I think it might have been more special for me, being from Kansas. I know the guys were all very excited as well, but for me, beating Kansas in my home state, just added to the moment. And then coming back to Ames, the fans were unbelievable. There was a large celebration in Hilton Coliseum. When we got escorted back into the building, the fans were going crazy. Basketball wise, I don't know if there is a better feeling than I'm sure we all felt that night."
"I had absolutely no idea this team would be so successful to begin the season," said Clear Channel radio play by play analyst Eric Heft. "Going into the year, I was expecting a sixth or seventh place finish, much like everyone else. But that team had the great interior defense with Cato in the middle. And some of the best clutch shooting I'd ever seen, in Dedric Willoughby. Kenny had about 300 release points on his shot, and was very successful at getting the ball in the hoop. Shawn was the lock down defender, often times guarding the other teams' best player. Then of course Jacy was the glue that ran the team. That team, more than any other I can remember, was clutch and hit big shots when they needed."
"If you are going to play for Tim Floyd, you are going to practice hard. There is no doubt about that," said former Cyclone legend, and color commentator for the Cyclone Television Network, Gary Thompson. "If you practice hard, you played hard. I'd watched practice back then, and they got very intense.
That team had a little bit of everything. Cato was a big presence on the middle, and they had probably, what I'd consider the best clutch shooter in the game at the time, [Dedric] Willoughby. Pratt and Bankhead were both forwards that could do a lot of damage down low. Pratt was a guy who knew how to play on the inside, use his body, and was really though.
Jacy was a guy whom Floyd tried to recruit over for a couple of years, but could never find anyone better. He [Floyd] always thought he needed someone quicker and faster. Jacy just didn't make many mistakes. He didn't turn the ball over. And I don't think people ever gave him enough credit for, besides running the team, his defensive ability. He was a kid who was able to stay in front of a lot of quick guards which were in the league at the time. Jacy was a good, smart player who made a lot of good decisions. He played a key role in helping that team. That's the reason why Floyd could never recruit over him. He was good enough to keep you honest if you dropped off from him.
That team grew during the second half of that season, and you could tell they were gaining confidence in themselves."
Chosen as a 5 seed in the Midwest bracket of the 1996 NCAA Tournament, the highest seed achieved in Iowa State history up to that point, the Cyclones first opponent would be 12th seed California from the Pac 10. And despite a second half rally by the Bears, the Cyclones came out victorious 74-64 to record a then school record 24th victory. Willoughby had 23 points, while Kenny Pratt added 18. The Cyclones were able to hold national freshmen of the year, Pac 10 Player of the Year, and future NBA player, Shareef Abdur-Rahim to a career low seven points. Future NFL All-Pro tight end, Tony Gonzalez, was also held in check with only six points and rebounds apiece.
"For us to make it to the NCAA tournament was good," said Bankhead. "It was a different experience all together. It was fun, but we also realized it was do or die for us. We knew we could compete. We weren't scared of nobody at that point. We'd already exceeded our goals as a team, so everything else was just special. It was a great experience to test ourselves against teams from other conferences."
"We talked a lot about not being satisfied with just being there," said Holloway. "I think we enjoyed the moment a little better as juniors than the next year as seniors, in that we tried so hard not getting caught up in the moment. We practiced hard when we needed to practice, and kept that determination even though it was easy to have a let down after such a big win in the Big 8 tournament."
The first round victory set up a match-up against 4th seeded Rick Majerus and the Utah Utes. And despite second team All-American Keith Van Horne fouling out with six minutes remaining, another future NBA player, Andre Miller hit a 3-pointer and nailed two free throws in the last minute to give Utah the 73-67 victory. Jacy Holloway, Dedric Willoughby and Kenny Pratt played all 40 minutes in the defeat.
"They didn't appear fatigued, but because they were forced to play the same guys, they were limited in what they could do," said Heft. "With the limited line-up they couldn't rotate your offense or defense to a bigger or smaller lineup. They were forced to play what they had, and they didn't have the flexibility as to how they played the game. But 99.9% of the time during that season, they were able to found a way to make it work. This time it unfortunately didn't."
The 1995-96 campaign started with a team that was supposed to go nowhere but instead finished atop the Big 8 and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Willoughby earned All-Big 8 honors, as well as was named Big 8 Newcomer of the Year. Kenny Pratt was chosen as second team all Big 8 as well. Together, the Cyclones ended the year in the top 20 in all major polls for the first time ever. But that doesn't mean it was time to let off the gas and become satisfied with the success achieved thus far.
"During that off season we were all constantly in the gym working out and shooting," said Bankhead. "We were always in the gym playing, trying to work on our game so we can go deeper in the tournament the next year."
"That off season, we all took classes for summer school, and tried to keep playing ball," said Pratt. "It wasn't competitive like a practice setting, but we were trying to stay focused, and going further than we had the year before. Our goal heading into the season was to try and win the whole thing."
By the time the 1996-97 Cyclones took the court, they found themselves in a reversed role from exactly one year ago.
"We weren't nobody's anymore," said Holloway. "Teams knew of us, and were trying to get us now rather than last year, when it was us out to get them. We still felt like we had the pieces to make a deep run in the tournament."
Those five seniors led Iowa State to a hot 10-0 record to begin the season, and at one point a top 5 ranking. However injuries started to hamper an already thin line-up.
"My hamstrings," said Willoughby. "I couldn't stay healthy to save anything. It was a very big disappointment, and at the time I didn't know what was happening. Once I aggravated it the first time, I never gave myself time to heal. I'd tell the doctors, and the trainers that I am OK so I can get back on the floor with my team. We felt like we had a good team heading into the season, and wanted to be National Champions. I was afraid to let my team down, and so I gave it my best."
Despite having Willoughby out of the line up, the Cyclones were still able to travel into Iowa City and capture the exclusive Big 4 Championship with a victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes, 81-74.
"For a bunch of us guys who were not Iowa guys, the games against the University of Iowa were always a big game," said Holloway. "We took that game very seriously, because we listened to all our fans that didn't really much care for Iowa. So we took those games to heart playing for our fans, and wanted to win those games for our fans."
"There were plenty of big games that season," said Bankhead. "Both Kansas games were big. They were upset we'd beat them the prior year for the Big 8 Championship. And so we knew that the first game in Kansas was going to be crazy, and it was."
The Cyclones lost an early match-up with the Jayhawks in Lawrence in early January. Despite having half their team miss playing time due to injuries, Iowa State was ready for it's rematch against Kansas. This time in Ames, and once again, in front of a nationally televised audience.
"Leading up to that game I hadn't practiced for awhile," said Willoughby. "I was still receiving treatments. That week, my brother and two close friends came up to visit me. They hadn't seen me play since my days at New Orleans, and had come up for both the Kansas and the Missouri game later that week. When they arrived, I tried to show a little extra work and motivation, because these are my peers. That particular day I was really hyped because it was CBS, Sunday, a national television audience - I know everyone in the country is watching that game. I felt like I had something to prove. And that first half I couldn't miss. It was like I was on a mission. I was determined not to let them take control in our house. It got loud. The floor was shaking and everything! We couldn't come out with it in the end, but we tried our hardest."
Despite a career high 36 points for Willoughby, including a then school record 9 three pointers, Iowa State fell to defeat 62-69.
As a member of the newly formed Big XII Conference, southern schools Texas, Texas A & M, Texas Tech and Baylor made their way onto the schedule. This new round robin of games were met with mixed emotions among the Cyclone team.
"We were definitely excited that we would now get to play the Texas schools in the new Big XII," said Pratt. "Adding those teams made the conference very competitive as a whole. And being able to venture out into different states was very exciting."
"Everyone said that it was more for football, but we also knew that there were some tough basketball schools as well," mentioned Holloway. "It felt weird for me, having grown up in the heart of Big 8 territory, and having played in the Big 8 for a couple years now. But we adjusted and took it one game at a time."
The season ended with the Cyclones going 22-9 and finishing tied for third in the Big XII Conference. Among those victories was a 65-54 win against Colorado on February 26th, 1997. Senior night, and for most of the Cyclones playing that day, their last game in Hilton Coliseum and in front of the Cyclone faithful.
"I knew it was going to be my last opportunity to play in front of that great crowd at home," said Holloway. "It was a special time because the Iowa State fans will back you non-stop whether you are winning or losing. It was tough for me to say goodbye after playing there four years."
A second round loss to Kansas in the Big XII Tournament, Iowa State found themselves back in the Midwestern bracket of the 1997 NCAA Tournament. This time as a 6 seed scheduled to play the eleventh seeded Illinois State Redbirds in the Palace of Auburn Hills, Michigan. Kelvin Cato scored a career high 29 points, pulled down 12 rebounds, and blocked a Midwest Region record - 8 shots, en route to a 69-57 victory. Dedric Willoughby scored 21 points, while Jacy Holloway poured in 9 assists after playing all 40 minutes.
"Cato was a monster," tells Holloway, "especially offensively during that game. We always knew what he could give us defensively, and that he could control the paint. But he pulled off some post moves he didn't normally make, and finished near the rim, which was pleasant surprise. He was a terror that game."
"I felt like I had a bad game," explains Pratt. "Coach Floyd and the other coaches sat me down after that first round game and asked me what was wrong. I wanted to come out against Cincinnati and be aggressive."
The victory set up a showdown between the now 18th ranked Cyclones, and the 10th ranked Cincinnati Bearcats, who were a three seed in the tournament. The winner would advance to the sweet 16. It was an important game for Iowa State because a victory would not only exceed how far they'd gone in the tournament the year before, but also show the country that the Cyclones had the talent to compete with the bigger programs.
The Bearcats Melvin Levett hit two free throws with just over a minute remaining to give them the lead. Tim Floyd called a time out and huddled his players together. Tthe rest was history.
"It was an out of bounds play," explains Holloway, "and Klay [Edwards] set a screen. His man helped really big on defense, and so I passed him the ball. He turned around and was able to make a little left handed hook shot off the back board. We were a close group, and we all trusted each other. Here was a guy who hadn't played all that much throughout the season, but stepped up big playing a lot of minutes during this game, and found himself open and made the shot."
"It was a reaction shooting the ball, as we'd run that play a hundred times in practice," said Edwards. "Dedric was supposed to come off a quick pick and if I wasn't open, the pass was to go to him. I took the shot as it came second nature to me. The only thoughts running through my mind were to run back and play defense."
Edwards shot gave the Cyclones the lead. But the Bearcats still had one final chance. Cincinnati's Damon Flint missed a last second shot and advanced the Cyclones to their first Sweet 16 since 1986 to face second seeded UCLA in San Antonio, Texas.
"That was my favorite game throughout my collegiate career," said Bankhead. "Being from California, I knew a lot of those guys on the UCLA team. Playing in the Alamo Dome in front of 40,000 fans was a great feeling. I remember everything about that game.
The Cyclones built up a 37-25 halftime lead over the Bruins.
"We had a tremendous opening to that game playing through Kelvin Cato," said Floyd. "Kelvin was able to wait on UCLA to double down low, and then kick it to the perimeter to the open shooters. We got out to a fabulous start by not turning the ball over and guarding UCLA well. At one point we had a 16 point lead with 11 minutes to go. We were not a deep team, and had a very limited rotation. Kelvin was a guy who could only play in 4 minute stretches, and then need a 2 minute break. We'd taken him out around the 16 minute mark, and put in Klay Edwards, who up until that point in the game had a great game, and great run through the Big 8 tournament. He missed a couple of free throws and they were able to knock down 2 three's cutting the lead to 10. I decided to put Kelvin back into the game, and he wasn't as effective as he could have been, because of fatigue. We started to get a little tight as they cut the lead down to seven. Then they started a little press, which caused a few turnovers in the back court. They made a shot with under 3 seconds to go, over an out stretched arm of Kelvin Cato. Once again, I thought fatigue played a part on that last possession. We literally lost a game which was very very winnable. I will always look back on it as one of the more difficult losses during my career."
Just like that, the game was over. Dreams crashed. You could almost hear the hearts of not only the Cyclones on the court, but the fans in the stands, as well as the fans at home standing in excitement, collective hearts sink. And for the five seniors on the court, playing their last game in a Cyclone uniform, it made a lasting affect to this day.
"That was a tough pill to shallow, and to this day, I cannot watch that whole game," explained Pratt. "I'd known the guy who made the shot, Cameron Dollar. We'd played in a lot of camps together in high school. So it was no surprise to me that he'd made the shot. It was just very disappointing because I felt that if any year we had a shot, I felt like that year we could win it all."
"I went about 4 years before watching that video," said Holloway. "It was probably one of the toughest things I'd ever had to go though. I was second guessing what I should have done, or could have done differently. I had a difficult time sleeping and had a difficult time in school for a few weeks after that game.
I'll be honest; I got tired during that game. The times I do watch the tape I can tell exactly when I'm worn out. We had a pretty good lead in the 2nd half of that game, and then I turned the ball over a few times, or didn't run hard to get the ball, and someone else got the ball, and they turned it over. I may have lost focus, and allowed them to cut away at the lead. But I don't like using that as an excuse. Fatigue is something you have to battle through.
I'm sure a lot of my teammates still don't realize how much I still think about it to this day. It was a very difficult thing to go through."
"That last second shot was unbelievable," said Bankhead. "I thought Cato was going to block that shot. That was a very tiring game, and we were all drained by the end. It's too bad we lost because I still feel to this day we would have beat Kentucky in the following game. I think Kentucky ended up beating UCLA by twenty or so, but we knew we matched up well with Kentucky. Coach [Rick] Pitino liked to pressure the ball, and we knew we could beat their pressure and get some easy shots. Unfortunately we didn't get that opportunity."
Instead, the five seniors, who had gone through so much together over the past two years, removed their cardinal and gold jerseys one last time. From the time they each stepped on campus and began working out together in the summer of 1995, they knew they had something special. The world didn't know it at the time, but they made a point to ensure that we took notice. They went from being picked last by everyone in the country, including those close to the program, to having more success in back to back years than any Cyclone team before it.
"The one thing for us collectively is that we hated to lose," said Holloway. "Whether it be playing in practice or against another team on our schedule. We had great role players who played within themselves to the best of their ability, and excelled at it. We had guys who could handle not being the scorer, or not touching the ball every time down the court. We were a very close team, and everyone got along. We never had any issues on or off the court. Looking back, I see that we were a real team, dedicated and working hard toward the same goal of winning games."
"I knew we had something special after our loss to Kansas during that first year," said Bankhead. "After that game we went on a winning streak, and from that point on, we felt like we were invincible. We had the best center in the country in Cato, the hottest shooter in the country in Dedric, a gritty and tough 6'3" small forward in Kenny, a lock down defender in myself, and then of course our floor general, Jacy. We were able to come together from all parts of the county. Everything just seemed to click, and it was a blessing to have the success that we had during those two years, including winning the last Big 8 Championship. Coming from Atlanta, Chicago, New Orleans, and myself from California, we gelled on and off the court. We were a tight group."
In two seasons, this determined bunch rewrote the Iowa State record books. Tim Floyd was named Big 8 Coach of the year, and AP national runner up for coach of the year in 1996. Kelvin Cato broke the then record for most blocked shots in school history, with 189. A two time first team all conference pick, Willoughby was named MVP of the 1995 Big 8 Tournament, and still holds the school record for most 3 pointers made in a season with 102, and a game with 9. Jacy Holloway is still ranked 3rd all time in assists during his career with 592, and has the schools best assist-to-turnover ratio. Kenny Pratt, who was CBS's Player of the Game during their coverage of the Big 8 Championship game, is still in the top 10 all time for career steals, made it to the free throw line an unprecedented 390 times over a span of two years, and finished his career 13th all-time in points per game through his career at 15.1ppg. There aren't many statistics kept for defensive players, but if there was one, Shawn Bankhead would have been an All-American. He was constantly challenged by Coach Floyd to guard the opposing teams' best player, and took the challenge to heart. He'd guarded strong post players like Kansas' Paul Pierce, as well as speed demons like Nebraska's Tyron Lue. Together, they found the secret formula for success.
Cato was drafted in the first round (15th overall) to the Dallas Mavericks, and then traded to Portland. He spent 10 years in the NBA before hanging up his sneakers after the 2006-07 season. Others enjoyed professional success on the basketball court as well.
Willoughby had three different stints with three different teams in Italy. After Italy, he'd caught on with the Chicago Bulls, and then in Sydney, Australia. "Once I started playing professionally, and I got injured, it was more bouncing from place to place until I could find the next job. I never gave my body enough proper time to heal, and always rushed my way back onto the court. With the Bulls, I came in a little later, and was just finding my groove when I got injured again and that ended my playing career. But I made the most of the opportunity. Before my injury I was in the top ten in most categories for drafted rookies. And later in the year I had 21 points off the bench against the Pacers, and named player of the game. That next time I got the start, against the 76ers. That was my dream come true coming out to hear your name called by the P.A. Announcer. I came out, and scored the first two points of the game. I got a lay-up against Allen Iverson. But coming down I pulled my groin. And that was the end of my career.
After Chicago I went to Sydney and played in 1 game. After the game I'd sat down with a doctor and he gave me his professional opinion. Realistically, I wasn't getting any younger. My fiancée was pregnant. And this doctor told me that if I continued to try and play ball, I could be crippled. And the thought of not playing with my child when they grow older was enough to make me hang it up.
For the past 6 years I was the hiring and training manager for Captain D's Restaurant. I was responsible for training all the managers that came into the company. I never thought I'd be in the management role, because that was the type of work my mother was in. She was constantly working 70-80 hours a week, and that time took her time away from her family. And I found myself in that same situation recently, and decided I had to step away. I was recently just offered an assistant coaching position at one of the local high schools here. It's exciting because I'd love to give back to the community, and if I'm able to show some young kids how they can right some wrongs through the game of basketball, and be successful, it would mean a lot. I'm the very example of how life is about choices, and you can either go this way or that way. That's what I'd like to do."
Bankhead played the 1997 season in Finland. Then one year in the International Basketball Association, and then two years in Sweden, as well as time in Korea, Venezuela, and also Columbia before hanging it up. He's currently teaching kids in special education, and has been a varsity basketball coach for the past five seasons in California. "I have two daughters, 16 and 4, and I'm trying to be the best father I can be."
Pratt participated in the Denver Nuggets veteran's camp, and then was with the Milwaukee Bucks before the 1998-99 NBA lockout. He later got drafted by the CBA, played a little in the IBA, before playing a year over in England. Injuries eventually forced him to retire. After basketball he came home to Chicago and put together an AAU program called Student Athlete. Since then he's had 7 kids sign with a Division I team, and many others sign with various junior college programs. "It's a pleasure to be involved with basketball, and being able to help kids go in the right direction. If there is any advice I can give them from my experiences, I get great joy from that."
Holloway graduated from Iowa State University in 1998 with a degree in management. And from 1999-2002 I was an assistant coach at Garden City Community College under Jeremy Cox, who is now an assistant coach with Doc Sadler at Nebraska. Later he had a stint as an assistant at the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith. This past year he spent his first year as the head basketball coach at Garden City High School in Kansas.
But success does not always come on the basketball court, and each of these former Cyclones is a living testament to that. Success also comes in the classroom, which is something that still remains very important to this group of men.
"We've all talked about getting back and finishing our degree," said Bankhead, "and I'm finally working toward that goal. I'm currently working on finishing my degree at Iowa State."
"I've been in contact with Fred [Hoiberg] and we're working something out so that I can complete my degree at Iowa State University," explain Willoughby. "I'm looking forward to that, and excited about the challenge."
"I've been in school during this last semester at Iowa State, and I'm one class away from graduating," said Pratt. "I'd like to say a huge thank you to Iowa State Academic Advisor, Kathleen Timmons, who has been trying to work with me to finish my degree since 1997. Both she and Dr. Hill have worked with me to get me to the point where I'm close to finishing my degree, and I couldn't say thank you enough to both of them."
In 2008, both Kelvin Cato and Dedric Willoughby were voted by the fans, as members of the All-Century team celebrating 100 years of Iowa State Men's Basketball.
"I was extremely humbled and honored," said Willoughby "I'm a pretty humble guy who likes to play basketball and never expected to do have the things I was able to do by playing basketball. To be honored as one of Iowa States all time greatest after only playing two years. I was extremely honored. When I came back and they honored me at half time, my wife and daughter were with me. My daughter got a real kick out of the entire atmosphere. They got the same warm feeling that I had when I first stepped on campus so many years ago."
Coming up on 15 years since their playing days have ended in Ames, Are they still able to keep up with Iowa State, and remain in contact with their former teammates?
"Most definitely I still follow the team," said Pratt. "I've been a Cyclone since I was in sixth grade. I still follow the team, and in my heart I will always be a Cyclone. I plan to come back next December to Ames and give thanks to a lot of people.
I miss the camaraderie with the fellows. Coach Floyd and his staff have a great place in my heart. Some of the people I'd met in Ames are still to this day some of the greatest people I'd ever met. And I still keep in touch with every teammate I had during those two years at Iowa State. It was a great experience, and everyone in Ames for the most part was very good to me, and I appreciate it very much."
"I still keep up with Iowa State," said Holloway. "My kids are big Iowa State fans. My son's room is actually painted cardinal and gold, and has a bunch of Iowa State stuff hung on his walls. We've made it up to Ames once or twice, but it's a 10 hour drive so we can't make as many as we'd like. We went to the game at Kansas this year as well. But we absolutely do still follow Iowa State.
I keep in contact with Kenny the most. I haven't spoken with Shawn in awhile. I've spoken with Cato once or twice. Klay Edwards and Paul Shirley are some guys I've kept in contact with some. Dedric and I hadn't spoken in awhile, but we've recently reconnected through facebook and we talk here and there. After all this time, we are all still pretty good friends.
Looking back, I miss the friends and the time spent with my teammates. We were very close, and I miss hanging out, talking, and enjoying each others company. I don't necessarily miss the lime light as much as I used to, but I do miss hanging out as a team."
"I've always kept up with Iowa State," said Willoughby. "They're not always on TV, but I always check the papers to see how they did. The time I was there I learned a lot. The atmosphere, the people, the community, and the lessons I was taught were endless. I will tell any high school student out there that if they want to get a real chance to be a student athlete, and camaraderie with your peers - choose Iowa State.
Ever since I stepped foot in Ames, the fans and community has given nothing but a warm response, and full support. Nobody judged my background, and they gave me the opportunity to start over. You knew the fans cared about Iowa State basketball when there were 11,000 fans to show up and support us during that first exhibition game. We were picked to finish in last place, and they still came out to watch us play in an exhibition game. We used to talk about as a group that no matter what happens, we have to work hard for not only ourselves, but those fans. We weren't playing just for ourselves, but for this prestigious university, and the name on the front of the jersey. The fans stuck behind us with the good and the bad. My time at Iowa State is something I will always cherish."
And so will we. As an adolescent growing up the 1995-96 Iowa State Cyclones Mens Basketball team is what made me an Iowa State fan. My first collegiate viewing experience was a home game against Coppin State on January 2nd 1996. While everyone else in America was watching the Florida Gators win a national championship in football, a full house in Hilton Coliseum was cheering on the Cyclones. You could almost sense the confidence growing on that team. They were the underdogs proving a point, determined to place their stamp on history. Sixteen years later, I can still see the images of Kelvin Cato blocking a weak shot in the lane. Jacy picking it up and passing ahead to Willoughby for an open three, which, like clockwork, went through the hoop. The crowd goes nuts. Sixteen years later and the thoughts still make the hair on the back of my neck stand.
Writing this article was a lot like my dad would have felt had he had the chance to interview Mickie Mantle, Harmon Killebrew or Carl Yastrzemski. These guys were my idols. They were who I pretended to be in my parents' driveway growing up. But better yet, these were, and always will be, Cyclones.