Linder, Wyoming Embracing Spoiler Role Down the Stretch
LARAMIE -- Wyoming's postseason chances were probably all but dead when the calendar flipped to December. If they weren't, an eight-game skid ended all hope.
Speaking of that slide, six of those setbacks came at the beginning of Mountain West play.
Conference title dreams, dashed.
Piling on to all that misery above, the Cowboys were never at full strength this season. Graham Ike's preseason foot injury lingered. The team's new leading scorer, Noah Reynolds, was also shut down for the year last week after suffering his third concussion in six months.
Unfortunately for Jeff Linder's squad, those were the bookend issues.
Hunter Maldonado, Brendan Wenzel, Kenny Foster, Hunter Thompson and Jeremiah Oden have all missed time with some ailment. Xavier DuSell is the only regular on this roster to appear in all 25 games during this mostly forgettable campaign.
Just to tack on some additional adversity, Wyoming's big-name offseason acquisitions -- Max Agbonkpolo, Ethan Anderson and Jake Kyman -- all left the team earlier this month.
So, what's left to play for?
Of course, Wyoming could go on a run in the league tournament in Las Vegas and strap on its dancing shoes, but the reality is fans got a glimpse of that answer in the Cowboys' stunning 70-56 victory over New Mexico inside the famed Pit.
"I mean, yeah, that's the motivation," Linder said Thursday, referring to playing the role of spoiler. "The other team knows that, too, coming in. Whose level of desperation is going to be higher in terms of finding a way to win the game?"
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The Lobos were the last unbeaten team remaining in the country at 14-0. Twice this season that team has entered the Top 25. Jamal Mashburn Jr. is the leading scorer in the league and Jaelen House has been electric since the moment he stepped foot in Albuquerque.
Fast forward to Tuesday night.
New Mexico entered on a three-game losing streak. House was hampered with a hamstring issue and that unblemished start couldn't be further in the rear-view mirror. Still, Richard Pitino's team was on the bubble when it came to an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The shorthanded visitors drilled 11 triples and dictated play throughout, building a 20-point lead midway through the second half. Wyoming won the battle of the boards and pulled down 11 offensive rebounds in the upset. Four of the five starters finished in double figures. The one who didn't, Oden, netted nine and snagged seven rebounds.
Linder said it all boils down to effort, something he said he was attempting to coach far too often this season.
"I know those guys are going to be fighting to do the right thing and fighting for each other," he said of the 10 players on the active roster. "It's fun to sit back and watch as a coach, knowing that."
Air Force pays a visit to Laramie Friday night. Tipoff is slated for 8 p.m.
A win in that one simply gives the Cowboys a two-game winning streak and the momentum that goes with that. Three of the last four outings, however, could have serious implications in the race toward March Madness. The Cowboys play host to Utah State next Tuesday night inside the Arena-Auditorium. The Aggies, sitting at 20-7 overall and losers of 2-of-3, are fighting for their postseason lives.
A loss to a Quad-4 team will put a serious dent in those hopes.
After a trip to Fort Collins to take on Border War rival Colorado State three nights later (the winner of that one will likely get out of the cellar of the Mountain West), Nevada heads to the high plains. The Wolf Pack are currently 20-6 and are riding a four-game winning streak.
That's another opportunity for the underdog to bite.
Linder's bunch will close the season with a trip to top-ranked San Diego State. Though the Aztecs are likely guaranteed a spot in the tourney, a home loss to the Cowboys will send that seed plummeting.
"New Mexico couldn't match our effort over the course of those 150 possessions," Linder said. "And that's really what it boils down to."
University of Wyoming’s Top 50 Football Players
- University of Wyoming’s Top 50 Football Players