3 Quick takes: Low-scoring affairs are Pokes’ best friend
LARAMIE -- Remember the days when Jay Straight, Brandon Ewing or Brad Jones used to fly up the court, dribble down the lane and -- nine times out of 10 -- sink the bucket?
Former head coach, Steve McClain, would scream from the sideline and give the thumbs up or thumbs down. Down typically meant a speedy point guard was about to break ankles and zip through the paint.
Up, well, that still typically involved scoring. And fast.
Yeah, those days are long gone in Laramie.
Wyoming outlasted a feisty Idaho State squad, 54-40, in front of a paltry crowd inside the Arena-Auditorium. They did it with ball possession, timely scoring and a smothering defense.
A 32-point effort from Hunter Maldonado sure didn't hurt, either.
We'll get to that in a minute.
This current Wyoming team is allergic to the quick-strike offense. How immune sensitive are the Cowboys -- They scored just 21 points in the first half on 17 shots. And one of those "shots" was a mistimed alley-oop from Maldonado to AJ Banks that happened to ricochet off the rim.
Idaho State finished the first 20 minutes with 25 shots. And the Bengals systematic offense also loves to flirt with zeros on the shot clock.
It's not pretty at times, but Wyoming showed once again in Tuesday night's season opener, the slow stuff can be effective. But with so few shots being taken, the Cowboys must do a better job of holding onto the basketball. Twelve turnovers won't cut it most nights.
This is their identity. Might as well get used to it.
"Well, yes," Wyoming head coach Allen Edwards said when asked if this is how the Cowboys are going to have to win games. "I felt like, I had a heart to heart with them. I thought the first two years, we were talented offensively. We played that way. But my background speaks more on the defensive end of the floor. Looking at this group, I think it could be someone every other night still … Whoever it is, our deal is stopping guys and rebounding the ball. And I thought we did a better job in taking care of the basketball."
Idaho State out-rebounded Wyoming, 32-28, including 13-3 on the offensive glass. The Bengals turned the ball over 15 times.
No doubt the Cowboys are running their tails off, mostly around the perimeter, but that shot clock is surely in single-digits before the ball leaves a shooter's hand on most occasions.
If you recall any of those Wyoming stars listed in the first sentence, then you surely remember those annoying Air Force teams that used to give the Pokes fits, no matter what the season records were, with that "Princeton-style" offense.
What the Cowboys are doing now isn't quite that painful, but it's similar.
The paint seems to always be empty. Each time the ball is passed around -- and that's a lot -- players are looking for the backdoor play. It worked twice for the Cowboys right off the bat Tuesday. Hunter Thompson laid in the first points of the game. The next two came on a thunderous, two-handed dunk from the Pine Bluffs product.
Even he joked that he might have the big offensive output in this one.
"It was a pretty exciting start, but like we've been saying, as long as we play team ball it doesn’t really matter," Thompson said. "If we're scoring offensively -- whoever that is -- I don’t really care if its myself or tonight Hunter, were going to take advantage of our mismatches."
Jake Hendricks had the offensive outburst in Wyoming's exhibition win over Northwest Nazarene last week, scoring 23 points to lead the Pokes to the 62-56 win.
Idaho State must've watched the tape. Not to mention Hendrick's junior college coach, Jared Phay, was on the Bengals coaching staff. Tuesday night, the visitors were all over Wyoming's senior point guard. His only field goal in the first half came on a wild, off-balance shot from behind the arc. He finished with just four points on 1-of-3 shooting.
If Hendricks can't deliver the dagger each night, who will? Maldonado is obviously capable.
But it has to be a group effort. That's exactly what we witnessed in the opener. It was ugly at times. Downright boring for stretches. But as the old saying goes, "a win is a win."
And if Wyoming hopes to have more of those than the word that begins with "L" this is likely how they are going to have to do it offensively.
Maldonado is back
Last week, this space was reserved for a cool little brief about how the leader of the team is back on the court after sustaining a season-ending injury and how that in itself was a win.
Tuesday, Hunter Maldonado was really back. Need proof? He scored a career-high 32 points in 33 minutes on the court. The entire Idaho State squad scored 40. Heck, the rest of Maldonado's teammates pitched in with just 22.
He's back in the flow.
He's back in the groove.
He's back to leading the Cowboys to victory.
"Like anything, I think I just saw opportunities and was trying to take advantage of them a little more," Maldonado said. "I feel better. I feel like it’s starting to be more smooth and in rhythm, but at same time I still got a lot of things I need to get better at."
Maldonado showed he was back when he split a pair of defenders and rose up for a two-handed contested jam early in the second half. It appears his hops are intact, too.
If that didn't prove it, moments later, the redshirt sophomore split the defense once again, drew the foul and scooped the underhand shot into the hoop while crashing to the floor.
Oh, and he picked up another slam dunk minutes later, too. That was in the midst of a 7-0 second-half Wyoming scoring run.
You get the picture.
This guy is good. In 2018, he was sorely missed. Surely Wyoming wins more than eight games with a healthy Maldonado and Justin James. But that's the past.
The Cowboys missed Maldonado's play last year, sure, but his cerebral game is most valuable. Thompson called his an "extension of the coach on the floor." He's always in the right spots. He's always finding the open guy.
"Obviously, Maldo was spectacular -- on both ends," Edwards said. "A lot of people will think about his 32, but I thought he did an even better job on the defensive end, guarding their leading scorer and forcing some tough shots."
Chier Maker, the Bengals leading scorer, was held to just five points on 1-of-10 shooting.
Want more good news?
Wyoming's offense might be painfully slow, but if the Cowboys play defense the way they have in their first two outings, they should be in a lot of contests.
How good was this effort? It was historic. The Cowboys haven't held a Division-I team to 40 points or less since the 1949-50 campaign. Montana State was the victim that night.
Wyoming held the Bengals to just 32 percent shooting from the field, including 4-for-24 from three.
"Coming in, we are defensive minded," Maldonado said. "We've been harping on defense all summer. We take pride on the defensive end. I think, when they go on one those runs, it's personal to us in the sense we have to stop them. I think we did a good job."
Austin Mueller, AJ Banks and Thompson were really good on the defensive end Tuesday. So was Maldonado and Hendricks. They collectively made life miserable for Bengals shooters.
"Obviously, the point of emphasis with our team is the defensive side of the floor," Mueller said, still sporting bright red scratch marks on his right arm from a long night's work. "To hold a team to 40 points, that’s setting yourself up for success no matter who the other team is."
Watch Banks trail this play only to swat the ball into the Idaho State bench:
Then, he did this:
Banks could've sulked. He was taken out of the starting lineup and replaced by Greg Milton III.
"I had a great talk with AJ, and that’s what I love about this group, some kids would get caught up with not hearing their name called in the starting lineup," Edwards said. "He took it and I thought his energy was great in practice and it was better today."
Idaho State hit just 32 percent of its shots from the field in the first half while sinking 8-of-25. They were even worse from beyond the arc, sinking just 1-of-11 attempts. That's a recipe for an 18-point half, which is exactly what the Cowboys held the Bengals to, the lowest in the Edwards' era.
It didn't get much better over the final 20 minutes.
Wyoming's defense was downright suffocating at times. They will need to be again with a road game at South Carolina coming Sunday morning. You might recall, one of the Pokes eight wins last season came against the Gamecocks, 73-64, in Laramie.
I have a feeling they will be ready for this meeting. So does Edwards.
For now, his focus is on the Cowboys best defensive night in nearly seven decades.
"I was happy with our effort," he said. "I thought we had a few lapses in the first half where they scored five consecutive times and seven in second. We are hanging our hats on the defensive side of the floor. What I like about it, they took notice of that, too, and wanted to hold each other accountable."
Wyoming and South Carolina tip-off Nov. 9 at 10 a.m. MST.