Tucker’s 10 takes: Ike closes out Pokes seventh straight win
LARAMIE -- I wrote on my notepad at halftime: Who is the closer on this team?
Wyoming, for the first time all season, trailed at halftime. Denver (3-6) was shooting lights out, hitting 56% of its shots, including 7-of-12 from beyond the arc.
Who on this Cowboys team would provide an answer?
The Cowboys big man scored a career-high 35 points, including 21 in the second half, and pulled down 14 rebounds in the 77-64 win over Denver, Wyoming's seventh straight win to begin the 2021-22 campaign.
That mark matches the best start for this program since the 2014-15 season. The seventh victory that year also came at the Pioneers expense.
On a night when Xavier DuSell failed to sink a single bucket and Hunter Maldonado got in second-half foul trouble, the 6-foot-9 freshman came to the rescue. He was up to his usual tricks. He backed guys down. He spun. He made jumpers and hook shots. When it left Ike's hand, 64.7% of the time, it found the bottom of the net.
"It's super nice," Maldonado said when asked what it's like to have a closer like Ike. "Obviously, tonight when we were pounding it inside, they didn't have an answer for him. His numbers, as you can see, show how much work he puts on both on the court and off the court. So is it super nice."
The humble Ike cracked a wide grin when asked if he's ever scored 35 points in a game at any level.
How does he feel about being the Pokes go-to-guy when a game hangs in the balance?
"You know I really don't notice," he said. "We're just trying to take it one possession at a time, as a team. I wasn't really paying attention, I was really to just trying to get a stop. That's really what we're trying to focus on."
Wyoming's head coach wasn't quite as modest in his assessment of the Colorado native's night.
"Well, I mean, he's done that every game," Jeff Linder said. "So it's just, you know, he's a special player, which I've told you guys from day one."
The points were nice, but Linder said the pressure Ike puts on opposing defenses is what sets him apart. Thursday night, he drew 13 fouls. He also sank 13-of-17 free throws.
Linder compared Ike to 6-foot-3, 247-pound Tennessee Titans running back, Derrick Henry.
"When you have a guy like Graham, who can draw fouls ... it just puts a lot of pressure on the other team," he said. "As the game goes on, it's just like football, if you have a really good running game you can control the time of possession and you can just keep running the ball."
This was a performance Craig Bohl would be proud of.
Here are some other thoughts and observations from the Cowboys (7-0) 13-point victory:
* Denver was 7-of-12 from beyond the arc in the first half of Thursday night's game. Linder wasn't thrilled. He said he challenged his team to start making life just a tad tougher on DU guards Jordan Johnson and Coban Porter, who accounted for five of those makes. "That was a challenge, to minimize their three attempts," he said. "They didn't make the three in the second half. Because, if you take away those 15 points in the first half, it's a different game." Denver was indeed 0-8 from deep over the final 20 minutes.
* Xavier DuSell didn't hit a single bucket tonight. Not from the floor or the free-throw line. Guess how concerned Linder is about that? He isn't. On the plus-minus side of things -- a stat admittedly that Linder says can be misleading -- the Pokes freshman guard finished with a plus-14. That means his team scored that many points compared to DU when he was on the court. "He's a guy that when he was on the court, we put him on the other team's best guard and he usually doesn't make very many mistakes. He's a really good defender. He'll make shots." What does it say about this team when one of its best offensive weapons goes 0-for-6 from the field? "I think it just shows you how deep we are and how many people we can count on down the stretch," Maldonado said. "If we're all locked in defensively, we know on the offensive end that we're going to be fine." KJ Hunt, the Pioneers leading scorer, averaging more than 17 points per outing, was held to just eight.
* Hey, Wyoming really does have a student section. The lower bowl behind the hoops was actually fairly full for the first time in, oh, probably since 2015. Seriously, it's been a minute. The kiddos were loud and into it, even starting a chant during pregame. We even heard the beer song. Finally, people are listening to Linder's pleas. This team is fun. Get here Saturday. Tip time against McNeese State is set for 2 p.m. "The energy was great tonight," Ike said. "You know, we really needed that. We fed off that tonight, especially in that second half."
* The Dome of Doom is earning its nickname one victory at a time. The students showed up, but they weren't alone. For the second straight game, attendance rose. Thursday night, an announced 4,030 were in the building, by far the most since the 2019-20 campaign. "Sometimes, as a coach, you worry when you start building and you start getting good crowds, and you get a crowd like that, you don't want to have the proverbial letdown."
* Wyoming was favored by 20.5 points in this one, if you believe in that sort of thing. Yes, Denver was 3-5 coming in and losers of four of its last five, but this Pioneers team hasn't exactly been getting its doors blown off. The last two outings, a 66-65 setback at Air Force and a 77-68 overtime loss to Utah Valley, were commendable. The Falcons have won six straight and the Wolverines, a team Wyoming plays on Dec. 11, knocked off No. 12 BYU Wednesday night in Orem. This Denver team is going to win some games this winter.
* Denver forward Michael Henn, also referred to as "air ball" by the crowd inside the Arena-Auditorium, was a load under the bucket for Maldonado, Jeremiah Oden, Hunter Thompson and yes, even Ike. The 6-foot-8, 225-pound Washington product even banked in a triple late in the first half to cut the Pokes lead to one. On the next possession, Henn gave the visitors the lead. He netted a game-high 16 in the first half. He finished with 19.
* Wyoming was the second-ranked team in the nation when it came to defensive field-goal percentage (30%) after four games. The last two, however, have been a different story. Hastings netted 44% of its shots. Cal State Fullerton reached 48.1. Denver was even better Thursday night -- in the first half. The Pioneers hit 14-of-25 of their shots over the first 20 minutes of play. That equates to 56%. DU finished at 43%.
* The last time the Pokes played a game in this building 28 brown-and-gold "3's" lined the railing next to the visiting bench. That denoted the number of triples Wyoming hit that night against Hastings, tying an NCAA record. Thursday night, UW hit just 5-of-21 from deep, led by Drake Jeffries, who finished with three. That shows this squad can win in a number of different ways. That will serve them well with a conference play just around the corner.
* Wyoming is now one of just 14 Division-I teams with an unblemished record this season. Border War rival Colorado State is also undefeated. There are 350 DI schools. Pretty impressive.
* Here's how the Pokes scoring wrapped up: Ike 35, Maldonado 15, Oden 9, Jeffries 9, Thompson 5, Brendan Wenzel 2, Deng Dut 2