The University of Alaska Fairbanks’ performance in the 2002 Top of the World Classic men’s basketball tournament was one of those magical moments that comes along once in a lifetime.
Coming off a 4-23 season in 2001-02 with only two significant returning players on the roster, the Nanooks stunned the college basketball world by becoming the first NCAA Division II men’s team to win an eight-team tournament against Division I teams.
Coach Al Sokaitis’ team was led by sophomore newcomer Brad Oleson of North Pole, seniors Jason Williams and Steve Towne, sophomore transfer Chris Smith and a trio of freshman forwards from Alaska — Andrew Smith, Justin Bourne and Ivan Miskovic.
The Nanooks defeated the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in the opening round, Nebraska in the semifinals and Weber State in the championship game. Weber State gained a berth in the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament later that season.
The Carlson Center went from being a little more than half full on opening night to a standing-room- only crowd of more than 5,000 for the championship game.
As the Nanooks built their lead in the second half of the title contest, the noise inside the Carlson Center was deafening. With the clock winding down and victory in the home team’s grasp, the chants of “U-A-F, U-A-F” rang down from the rafters.
When the final buzzer went off, the real celebration began. Oleson was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, while Williams and Towne received all-tournament recognition.
The following evening, the Nanooks jumped on the back of a flatbed truck and rolled through downtown Fairbanks for a victory parade in minus-20 temperatures. The parade ended with another celebration at the Westmark Hotel.
The team went on to post a 20-8 record and make the school’s first appearance in the NCAA Division II West Regional.
– Bob Eley