3 Quick takes: This offense goes through Thompson
FRESNO, Calif., -- That's the Hunter Thompson Jeff Linder envisioned when he took this job back in March.
No, not just because the big man from Pine Bluffs was 7 of 8 from beyond the arc and finished with a team-high 22 points -- that helped -- but the nightly impact he has on the Cowboys' overall game plan.
Better yet, the challenges he brings to the opposition's plan of attack.
Orlando Robinson, Fresno State's 7-foot forward, is a monster in the post, but he can't stick with Thompson outside the paint. Same can be said for the Bulldogs' other big, Braxton Meah. Not many will be able to.
Linder likes to say three-pointers are worth more than two's.
Robinson got plenty of two's in this one, netting 15. Meah finished with six.
Thompson was better. Watch this.
There was a key play late in this one that really told the tale of that matchup tonight in Fresno.
With 2:16 to go and the Cowboys clinging to a 67-66 lead, Thompson stepped out, launched a three and was fouled in the process by Robinson. The ball swished through the net. Robinson headed to the bench with his fifth foul.
At a time when Robinson was playing cautious, he knew he had to get a hand in on the hot-shooting Thompson. Instead, he got a hip. Fresno State paid dearly for it, too.
Thompson's presence frees up Wyoming's guards. Tonight it was Marcus Williams and Hunter Maldonado benefitting from that, each scoring 13. Jeremiah Oden gets freed up, too. He responded with 11 points in the second half. He made life miserable for the Bulldogs with his hustle and athleticism.
"I don't treat Hunter like a traditional post player," Linder said postgame. "I did remind him it is OK now and then to roll a guy into the post. When you got a guy like him and other guys who can shoot it, it makes like easier for Marcus, Kwane (Marble) and Kenny (Foster)."
Linder added that Thompson still hasn't shown his true potential. COVID-19 quarantine, coupled with long breaks between games -- the Cowboys haven't played in 16 days -- have hampered his rhythm.
Thompson will be the first one to tell you he can get down on himself. He expects to be a factor in the paint and from deep, not to mention on the defensive end of the floor.
Once again, late in this one, Thompson and his four fouls went up in he block man-to-man with Robinson.
Once again, Thompson got the better of him, swatting his would-be lay in.
"That blocked shot and the rebound at the end gave us momentum and helped us get over the top," Linder said.
With 1:59 left on the game clock, Thompson did pick up his fifth foul and was forced to watch his team hang on. He didn't sulk, instead he motivated his teammates and told them to "pick him up."
"I knew coming in, myself and my staff -- and his teammates -- do a good job building him up and building him up," Linder added. "I tell him don't turn down open shots. We're only what, eight games in? It takes a little while to get a rhythm."
If this Thompson shows up on a nightly basis, the Cowboys will be in good shape home or away. But when he isn't hitting every shot and putting up big numbers, remember the guy who is likely is receiving those open shots courtesy of the big man.
Wyoming 78, Fresno State 74
Toeing the line
Kwane Marble was held scoreless in the first half. He attempted just two shots and missed both of his free throws.
Did Linder bat an eye? Nope.
"He's not scared," Linder said of the sophomore guard from Denver. "There's no fear there."
The second half wasn't much better from the floor, netting just two buckets. However, it was at the charity stripe that Marble put this one on ice. He went 4 for 4, scoring the last four points of the night with the game on the line.
This is nothing new.
He hit two with 30 seconds left against Omaha, extending the Pokes' lead to four. He hit late free throws against Oregon State and Incarnate Word, too.
"In the first half he was not even close, but he made them when they mattered," Linder said, reiterating that no moment is too big for Marble. "That's the beauty of this team. I have nine guys I'm not scared to put in the game."
What does it say about this team that they are able to keep hanging around and finding ways to win?
The free throw line has been anything but automatic for the Cowboys through eight games. Wyoming is 128th in the nation in that category, sinking just 112 shots on 161 attempts.
Saturday, they were 22 of 26. It was the difference in the game.
I asked Linder how this young team is able to hang in games and find a way late. He pointed to a number of reasons -- defense, free throws and big shots -- but that doesn't make it any easier to stomach.
"It makes my blood pressure rise," he joked. "I'll sleep a lot better when we find a way to win a little easier. To win in this league, you've got to find a way to win close games. Guys understand what we are trying to do late in games: get to the paint, get to the foul line and start sucking in the defense and hitting threes."
Wyoming entered this game ranked first in the Mountain West in scoring (85.6 points per game), three-pointers made (38%) and turnovers per outing with 10.4.
That's great, but the defense has to get much better.
Facing Fresno State's big men was going to be a tall task. Losing Eoin Nelson to a lower leg injury in practice on New Year's Day didn't help matters. Linder says the extend of Nelson's injury is unknown. They won't know more until they get back to Laramie Tuesday.
Wyoming is going to be thin in the big man department.
Linder hopes Graham Ike can make his debut sometime later this month. He's still recovering from offseason ACL surgery. Until then, Oden and Thompson will draw the nightly task of slowing down opposing forwards.
"It definitely would've been nice to have (Nelson) going against their big boys, but I thought we did a good job adjusting," Linder said, adding that Oden hasn't even practiced at the 5 spot, a position he found himself in plenty tonight.
Linder said his team looked like they were in a "fog" during the first half. He called it the "twilight zone." With the long layoff and holiday break, he said that was to be expected. Wyoming shot just 36 percent from the field in the first half while allowing the Bulldogs to hit 58 percent.
The Cowboys trailed 33-31 at the break.
Fresno State turned the ball over 16 times. That turned into 26 points for the visitors. The Bulldogs hit just 12 shots over the final 20 minutes. The Cowboys held Robinson to just five points in the second half.
"I challenged them at half," linder said. "I told them we're not going to beat anybody if we allow teams to shoot 58 percent from the field."
Wyoming might be lighting up the scoreboard, but Linder said the defensive efficiency has to rise from its current standing: 208th in the nation, allowing opponents to shot 43.8 percent.
"We need to step up on the defensive end," he said. "If not, we will pull them out. That's the only way to hold guys accountable. With young guys, sometimes you just don't know."
Here's what we do know.
Wyoming is 7-1 overall and has won six straight, including three true road games in that span. More importantly, Linder's Cowboys are 1-0 in Mountain West play.
"I always tell them it's not the start of the game, it's about who finishes it and who gives us the best opportunity to win and get stops," Linder said. "... We have the next 36-to-48 hours to find a way to get better.
"I hope the character of team will allow us to do that."