LAS VEGAS -- Could Wyoming really go toe-to-toe with the mighty Aztecs?

If you thought that pregame, you were probably lying to yourself.

That's not exactly a bad thing, either.

The Cowboys aren't there yet. They need some birthdays. When they show flashes though, that creates belief. Today, they created that in spades, dropping a heartbreaker to San Diego State 69-66 in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas.

To think a starting lineup that features three true freshmen was going to knock off the senior-laden,19th-ranked team in the nation is a pipedream. The Aztecs not only have visions of cutting down the nets in Las Vegas later this week, but climbing ladders in Indianapolis in early April.

That team was built to compete for at least a Sweet-16 run.

Wyoming is under construction.

Jeff Linder did a masterful job today. Brilliant really. He knew his team couldn't hang with the Aztecs if drastic changes weren't made. He reiterated that in his postgame press conference, admitting getting up and down the court with that team for 40 minutes was all but impossible. It leads to 30-point losses. We saw that twice already this year.

The game plan -- his game plan -- is the only one that would give the Cowboys any shot in this one. UW's first-year head coach decided to slow it down today, roughly 24 hours after boat racing San Jose State, 111-80.

He slowed it way down.

Wyoming looked very Larry Shyatt-esque on offense, didn't they?

Just like the last time UW beat SDSU in this building in 2015.

Marcus Williams, Kwane Marble or Hunter Maldonado would slowly walk the ball up the court before every offensive possession. One time it was too slow. Williams got hit with a 10-second violation. Linder pointed to his chest and took responsibility for that one.

Often times, the Cowboys didn't put up a shot until the clock was approaching zero.

Often times, the ball went in.

Xavier DuSell drilled his first four shots from beyond the arc for the second straight day. He finished with a team-high six of those. Kenny Foster added three triples, too. Maldonado aggressively went after Mountain West Player of the Year Matt Mitchell throughout the contest. That drew a pair of fouls and left the Aztecs' star watching from the bench for a majority of the first 20 minutes. He netted just two points in that half and eight overall, nearly eight below his season average.

Linder dared guys not named Mitchell or Jordan Schakel to beat them. Those two combined for nine points in the first half, 23 overall.

Credit to these young players. They made Linder's vision a reality.

DuSell admitted post game he was taken aback when he heard his coaches plan of attack. As you now know -- Linder's basketball IQ is off the charts.

"At first, I was a little just thrown off about it because nobody was expecting it really," said the true freshman, who finished with a team-high 21 points. "Obviously, (SDSU) sure as heck didn't. We just stuck to it. We know we have one of the smartest coaches in the world. So whatever he says, we just stick to it, try to do it to the best of our ability and just try to execute the game plan."

He even used a word I had to Google -- and then some. I don't feel too bad. Linder said Maldonado did, too. He's a lot smarter than I am.

"Peripety."

It means sudden change.

That was the beginning of the game plan you saw shakeout today.

"We needed to change a few areas," he said. "We didn't need to drastically change things -- we weren't going to change who we were over the course of 24 hours -- but we identified five areas that we could just change just a little bit and emphasize to where we give ourselves a chance to win.

"The guys probably thought it was a little bit crazy."

Not anymore.

* Limit offensive rebounds

* Control time of possession (like Craig Bohl, Linder added)

* Create paint touches

* Minimize the three ball

* Pick your poison

Those were the five things Linder knew his team would have to do today to have a chance. In other words, he wanted to cut the game in half, own the boards on the defensive end, get the ball inside to Graham Ike, slow down Terrell Gomez, and like we said earlier, let other guys like Trey Pulliam and Lamont Butler get theirs, shutdown everyone else.

* SDSU had just 57 offensive possessions

* SDSU snagged just three offensive rebounds

* Ike finished with 10 points and SDSU held a slight 16-to-18 advantage in the paint

* Gomez, the Aztecs' top three-point threat, did finish with a team-high 20 points, but he hit just one triple. As a team, SDSU finished 7-of-20 from deep

* The guys not named Mitchell and Schakel netted 46 of the Aztecs' 69 points.

In the end though, Wyoming is heading home and SDSU is on to the semifinals. The Cowboys finished the first season of the Linder era with a 14-11 record. They won seven of their 16 conference games.

There were nice road victories over Oregon State, Fresno State and Air Force.

Wyoming swept Nevada inside the Arena-Auditorium.

Williams was named the league's Freshman of the Year.

The roster, the 14th youngest in college basketball, made big-time strides.

DuSell isn't just efficient behind the arc, he has a great way of putting things into perspective.

"I think myself and everybody can take a lot from this game into next year, just kind of showing ourselves we can really do things in this league," he said. "Obviously, it comes with everyday work. One day after another, brick by brick. One day you're going to look up and you're going to have a mansion."

The foundation is laid and walls are starting to go up.

"On such a quick turnaround, for our guys to execute the game plan and to trust in the coaching staff, it just says a lot," Linder said. "That game was a great barometer of where we're at as a program.

"You know, there's no moral victories. Close isn't good enough. But with such a young group, I think people saw that we're getting better and that's the only thing you can ask for. Right now, we're playing our best basketball at the right time. Unfortunately, we were one possession short."

San Diego State 69, Wyoming 66

 

 

About that timeout

With eight ticks remaining on the game clock, Williams heaved up a three-point attempt.

That was the Cowboys best shot to take a last-second lead and escape with the biggest upset in Mountain West Tournament history.

It didn't land, but who else would you want to take that shot?

Linder knew.

"He wants that shot," Linder said about the freshman from Dickinson, Texas, "and I thought he was going to make that shot. He didn't make it, but for him to be in that situation, that's only going to help him moving forward."

The media didn't get a chance to ask Linder why he didn't call a timeout when the Cowboys retained possession with 23 seconds left. He knew it was coming.

Told you the guy is smart.

But was the decision not to run a set play?

"What you don't realize, you call a timeout in that situation, they're so good at denying the ball and making it really difficult to throw the ball in," he said. "So, now you call a timeout. Now I look like a hero because you know what, I'm a smart coach, I called a timeout. Then, lo and behold, we can't get the ball in-bounds. Now we throw it away. Well, same result."

Linder said he he felt like the floor spacing was good on that possession.

There's a bottom line no matter what.

"You know what, players have to make plays, and to that point, those guys had," he said referring to Williams and Maldonado, who carried the ball into the paint. "We still got a shot."

SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher said that was the big difference in this one.

"We made important plays down the stretch," he said.

 

 

You aren't the only one who is excited

A friend texted me after this one. His question: "Where do you think the Pokes land in the preseason MW poll next season?"

It's never too early to ask, right?

The answer is obvious: I don't know.

How great is it though to feel this kind of excitement for Wyoming hoops again? Last March, the Cowboys won a pair in this tournament. They weren't supposed to. That was fun, but I think we all knew the writing was on the wall for Allen Edwards and Co. We hoped Marble and Foster would be back. Same for Maldonado and Hunter Thompson.

This entire roster, barring attrition, will be intact next fall. This year was a very important mulligan. No one loses a year of eligibility.

Yes, that creates additional excitement, but Linder will be the first one to rain on that parade.

"Everybody else is going to be back," he said. "Every other team is going have their players back and add pieces."

Very true.

Aside from some of the NBA prospects in this league, look for much of the same, but that doesn't mean Wyoming can't be in the mix as early as 2022.

"Our ceiling is so high," DuSell added. "If we put in the work, I mean, there's no telling how good we can really be."

Williams could be one of the best point guards this program has ever seen. That's saying something. One of the best already, Jason Straight, agrees.

Ike could be one of the best big men to wear Brown and Gold. Linder admitted that himself.

DuSell has arguably been the Cowboys' best player over the last couple of months. I think if Williams doesn't take that shot today, No. 53 would've been a suitable replacement. That's an understatement. He's also the team's top defender.

The "old guys" Thompson and Maldonado both bring plenty to the table. Maldo does everything. Thompson can get hot at any moment.

Marble and Foster are both steady as they come. They are gritty, tough and can make plays. They do it on both ends of the floor.

Drake Jeffries can stroke it from deep. Jeremiah Oden could be the small forward this team really needs. Eoin Nelson adds toughness and another big body to the mix.

"Wyoming basketball will be a force to be reckoned with," Linder said. "... It's a day-by-day process, but I like where will be here in time."

POKES: The Seven Best Games In The History Of The Wyoming-CSU Border War Rivalry (Naturally, they were all Wyoming wins)