3 Quick takes: Too early to call that a must-win? Nope
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., -- Must win is one of the most overused terms in sports.
But make no mistake, this game was as close to a must-win game as they come for Wyoming tonight in Colorado Springs.
Xavier DuSell netted a career-high 19 points and was 5-of-9 from three, and four other Cowboys reached double figures scoring in a 77-58 victory over Front Range rival Air Force.
Not only are they putting four straight losses in the rear-view mirror -- three of which came by 20-plus points -- the standings say the Cowboys face four of the Mountain West's top teams next, beginning Friday night in Laramie when Wyoming hosts the 10-5 Nevada Wolf Pack.
Those next four foes -- Nevada, San Diego State, Colorado State and Utah State -- have a combined league record of 23-7.
Tonight, the Cowboys (8-5, 2-4) went back to old reliable to get back in the win column for the first time since Jan. 2.
- They were lethal from deep, sinking 16-of-32 three-pointers. That was the most by this program since December of 2016 when they matched that number against Northern Iowa.
- They turned the ball over just 11 times. Wyoming handed the ball to the Falcons 15 times Saturday, including a whole slew of them late as Air Force finished on a 15-5 run.
- The Pokes' bench outscored the home team 31-13. We'll talk about why in a minute.
- The Cowboys won the rebounding battle, 30-29, something they have done just four times in their first 13 games.
Those numbers are nice. This one is beautiful:
- Air Force was 1-for-12 from beyond the arc.
"I thought we did a good job pressuring the ball and keeping it to the outside," Wyoming's first-year head coach Jeff Linder said. "We guarded the three-point line. That's what my team looks like when things are hitting on all cylinders."
Linder wasn't about to use those two words mentioned in the first sentence of this column.
I'm doing it for him.
Discipline and effort, Linder said is what it took to beat Air Force (4-8, 2-6) tonight. The same will be true for the Boise States or San Jose States of the world.
In other words, Linder's Cowboys are worried about their game plan and crossing certain bridges when they arrive at them.
"I thought our guys, over the course of a four-game losing streak, they didn't bat an eye," he said. "With a young team, sometimes who have to see who you lose with before you win. These guys have been coached hard. They've been called out. It hasn't been good enough ... Fine isn't good enough. Tonight, our effort, especially on the defensive end and the ball pressure, caused them lots of problems."
The defensive end, as always, will be crucial for this group.
It's not every night -- as you've seen of late -- that the Cowboys will be this hot from deep. If they can hold opponents to 8% shooting from beyond the arc like they did tonight, my money is on the Cowboys. We all know that isn't a reality either.
Linder mentioned effort and discipline numerous times throughout his press conference tonight.
Here's another word the Cowboys will need to implement if they hope to make it through the murder's row they are about to face -- consistency.
Tonight, they had all of that and more.
Round 2 goes to Gatti
Linder was forced to cut his press conference short tonight.
There's a storm is rolling into town and the Cowboys have a three-hour bus ride ahead of them. Linder sounds like he's ready to bounce anyway.
"It feels like we've been in Colorado Springs for two months," he joked in his opening statement, referring to the two-game series between the Pokes and Falcons which began Saturday. "We've eaten like 10 meals out of a box."
Yes, that's life for a team in the era of COVID-19.
During the downtime, Linder poured over film with his guys -- per usual -- and talked plenty of strategy when it came to defending Joe Scott's Princeton offense. He also took some time to throw in a flick.
It was "Legendary nights: The tale of Gatti-Ward."
Let me preface this by saying I haven't seen this documentary yet, but the CliffNotes version lays it out like this: The light-welterweight boxers went at it three times -- 30 rounds -- over a 13-month period. Arturo Gatti, the favorite, went off script and was beaten in the opening match by Mickey Ward.
The second one, Gatti listens to his trainers and won.
That, according to Linder, is exactly what his young Cowboys did tonight.
"Air Force is a lot like Mickey Ward," Linder said. "He used determination and effort to be who he was. The character and toughness of their kids, they weren't going to quit. They were going to battle. Gatti played right into Ward's plan (in the first fight). In the second fight, he stuck to the plan.
"I thought that's what we did all night long. We matched their toughness and effort."
One player in particular could be labeled "Thunder" in this one.
Hunter Thompson can borrow Gatti's nickname at least for tonight thanks to a 10-rebound effort from the big man, who is still hobbled with an ankle injury he sustained in Game 1 against Boise State seven nights ago.
After that game, one in which Wyoming was outrebounded 47-23, Linder wasn't shy about calling out the 6-foot-10 Pine Bluffs product.
Linder joked that maybe that lit a fire? Or maybe his ankle injury actually allowed him to move better?
"That's the beauty of Hunter -- he wants to be out there and leave a legacy at the University of Wyoming," he said. "He's tired of losing. He knows he's not the toughest guy in the world, but he has a lot of heart. You saw how big his heart was (over the last two games)."
One confident Cowboy
DuSell was lights out tonight.
He shot 50% from the field and hit a team-high five three-pointers. The freshman from Arizona added a rebound and an assist, too.
DuSell has reached double digits in scoring in three of his last four outings. He, along with Drake Jeffries, have given the Cowboys a potent duo off the bench on the outside.
And on both ends of the floor.
Aside from a couple of big games against Incarnate Word and Oregon State, consistency eluded DuSell throughout the month of December.
Take a wild guess.
"The guy has had awful luck with COVID-19," Linder said. DuSell arrived in Laramie in July and was forced to quarantine as many as 60 days, per Linder, despite never actually getting the virus. "We saw a little bit early on that the number of days missed really put him behind the other freshmen."
Linder praised DuSell for his defensive effort more so than the 19 points he put on the board tonight inside Clune Arena.
"He takes a lot of pride trying to guard the perimeter player," he said.
Wyoming knows what it's getting from Hunter Maldonado and Marcus Williams on a nightly basis. They combined for 21 points in this one.
If DuSell can be a sixth-man who pressures opponents the way he has been, the Cowboys could be dangerous despite who is on the schedule ahead.