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LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — Wyoming's senior class proved historic in March.
And it proved historic again on Saturday.
In March, the Cowboys' five seniors helped secure the program's first Mountain West Tournament title.
On Saturday, Larry Nance Jr., Jack Bentz, Derek Cooke Jr., Riley Grabau and Charles Hankerson Jr. officially earned their bachelor's degrees from UW.
The latter four donned caps and gowns at commencement — including Bentz, who addressed the College of Business — while Nance remained at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago.
In doing so, Wyoming became the only major program to win a 2014-15 conference title in men's basketball while also graduating five or more seniors on time.
A group literally unlike any other.
"It's really a great story for me, selfishly because I'm an old-school guy that still believes that high school and college coaches' jobs are to develop, prepare, teach and mentor," UW head coach Larry Shyatt said, "and they're not supposed to be bus stops for five months. What a group to speak volumes for in the country."
Between UW's numerous commencements, Shyatt celebrated with his seniors and their families over lunch — and reached out to Nance's parents, too.
He admits, he got emotional.
"I got choked up because that group's meant a great deal to me," Shyatt told the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/1FwWWRw). "Unlike some, they put us on their shoulders, carried us through and cut the nets down."
They're the first class at Wyoming he's guided through the program, from start to finish.
When Shyatt arrived in March 2011, question marks surrounded UW, which came off a 10-21 record in 2010-11. Skeptics also questioned this batch of seniors even before they arrived on campus.
"Some of the cynics said, 'This guy's not good enough. This guy's too small. This guy's too skinny. Nobody recruited this guy,'" Shyatt recounted.
Surely, the end result of last season quieted most critics.
The bookend to a historic stretch — a 71-54 loss to Northern Iowa in the NCAA Tournament — has been met with mixed emotions.
Only one word fits to describe it.
"Well, it's been bittersweet," Bentz said. "Obviously career's over, basketball's over, but it's one of those things where, for us seniors, it's time to move on to the next part of our lives and kind of grow up and enter the real world. Bittersweet is probably how I'd describe it."
"It's been very bittersweet because you're around a group so long, since June — we come together in June, working our butts off in the trenches and stuff," Hankerson said. "It's definitely bittersweet because you lose that."
"It's been pretty bittersweet," Cooke said. "Just the best way to explain it is it's like a down feeling not being able to play basketball for the university anymore, but like a great joy that you get to move on to the next phase of your life."
Their stories, Shyatt says, are "unbelieveable."
Nance's tale is the most widely known: An unheralded recruit who met major adversity twice, overcame it and became the first UW player invited to the NBA Draft Combine since Theo Ratliff in 1995.
Grabau developed into the nation's top free-throw shooter in NCAA Division I.
Cooke, after a road block early in his time at UW, hit what Shyatt calls "the biggest two free throws in years."
Hankerson also came back from off-the-court obstacles to become a major contributor.
Bentz, a walk-on, earned his first career start on Senior Night after evolving into a capable bench player.
"I'll remember my incredible teammates, the coaching staff, just unrelenting fan support," Hankerson said. "They're very passionate about their sports teams. They let you know about it."
"I'm sitting here in Chili's right now and somebody just came up to me just to congratulate me on the season," he later added. "Definitely unrelenting fan support."
Nance, Grabau and Bentz each spent the past four seasons with UW, amassing 84 wins and 51 losses in that time.
The conference tournament title and the Cowboys' first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2002 provided a fitting end to their run.
And the five diplomas provided a fitting end to their time in Laramie.
Together, it provides proof that, in an era of one-and-dones, Wyoming's strategy can work.
"It really speaks loudly of what we try to tell people," Shyatt said. "We know how difficult it is for a really talented youngster to be recruited to the state of Wyoming at the University of Wyoming. But at the same time, what we are trying to sell — developing, mentoring, teaching, being part of giving back to a community — that's what drew us (his coaching staff) back to the university. It makes it at least more amplified that we can do that."
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com
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