Tuck’s 10 takes: Floundering Pokes fold in Vegas
LAS VEGAS, Nev., -- In a game that featured three of the top scorers in the Mountain West, it was a UNLV big man and a bench player that helped hand the Cowboys their fourth loss in six games.
Royce Hamm Jr., a 6-foot-9 senior, matched a season high with three triples and led the Rebels with 17 points and Justin Webster sank 5-of-7 shots from the field, including a long two with 1:33 left, to lift the Rebels to a 64-57 victory Wednesday night inside the Thomas and Mack Center.
Hamm averaged 8.4 points per night coming in. Webster just 4.8.
It wasn't just scoring that set those two apart, either.
Hamm was glued to Graham Ike for a majority of the night, holding the second-leading scorer in the conference to just 14 points on 6-of-19 shooting. He also pulled down 10 boards for the double-double.
Webster put an exclamation point on his night, ripping the ball out of the hands of Drake Jeffries with 49 ticks remaining. That led to a pair of free throws that put this one out of reach. The junior also added a 3-pointer in the win.
The Rebels, who haven't played since Saturday, consistently beat the Cowboys to loose balls and at times dominated on the glass. They won the rebounding battle 44-36 and snagged six early offensive boards, including four in a row in the first half.
The home team made all the winning plays Linder's young squad has relied on all season.
No one hates excuses more than Jeff Linder. But even Wyoming's second-year head coach admitted postgame, his team is tired after playing four games in the previous eight days.
"It's hard," he said, adding that he has lost track of the days. "You know, we've played 30 games. To be 23-7 with a group that, those expectations weren't there -- so you still have to look at the big picture. But we also need to finish. That's what we always talk about. I mean, every day, every practice, every possession -- you have to find a way to finish."
If it wasn't for a nine-point effort off the bench from Hunter Thompson, who hit his first three attempts from beyond the arc, the blowout was almost a certainty. His first splash put a halt to a scoring drought that lasted more than eight minutes. The Pine Bluffs product also drew a charge in the paint.
"He hasn't played a lot of minutes over the last month," Linder said. "For him to come in and make those three threes, he really kept us in the game and gave us an opportunity to win the game."
It didn't help matters that Hunter Maldonado was in the locker room with a left eye injury after taking an inadvertent hand to the face on a rebound with 14:43 left in the first half.
The redshirt junior re-entered the game with 6:28 left in the frame -- moments after Linder was hit with a technical foul for arguing with officials -- and went on a 6-0 run by himself to make it a three-point game.
Maldonado finished with a gutsy 22 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists to lead the Cowboys. He even added a pair of steals.
Linder said he suffered a "lesion" on his left eye and his status for Saturday's game in Laramie against Fresno State is up in the air.
"He's in a bad way right now," he said. "So, hopefully he'll be ready to go by Saturday, but I'm not sure if that'll be the case or not. But for him to come back in that game and to just grind it out, I mean, it just speaks to his toughness.
"... For him to even come back and play was probably a miracle."
Despite Maldonado's heroics, Wyoming couldn't overcome a night in which it shot just 34.4% from the field. To make matters even worse, the visitors drained just 7-of-26 from three.
This team has been getting offensive contributions from its role players of late.
Xavier DuSell and Jeremiah Oden didn't get on the scoresheet, missing all nine of their shots. Noah Reynolds also threw up a goose egg, misfiring on all three of his attempts from the field.
Wyoming falls to 23-7 overall and 12-5 in league play with one game remaining in the regular season. The Cowboys and Bulldogs are set to tipoff inside the Arena-Auditorium at 2 p.m.
"We have to figure out a way to keep on going, figure out a way to get (a win) Saturday," Linder said. "That's all our focus is."
Here are some more tidbits and takeaways from Wednesday night's setback in the desert:
* If there was a bright spot in this one, it was the job DuSell did on the Mountain West's leading scorer Bryce Hamilton, who missed his first six shots from the field and finished with just 15 points, eight of which came at the free throw line. Hamilton came into this game averaging 21.8 points per game. The southpaw was just 3-of-15 shooting in this one. "You know, that's what we did to (Nevada's) Grant Sherfield," Linder said. "What we did on Hamilton was, it was a tremendous effort. It was a tremendous effort on X's part and on (Brendan) Wenzel's part." Linder also dished out some credit to Ike for coming out on the shooter before fading back into the paint. He also thinks that effort on the defensive end "exerted" some energy after playing three games in five days.
* Maldonado, who missed eight minutes of the first half, terrorized the Rebels early in the second half, netting 16 of his 22 points on the night. He cut through the lane, backed down guards and landed a couple of floaters while making defenders look silly in the process. Hard to believe he was suffering from what Linder called a "serious injury." In the process of putting this team on his back, the Colorado Spring native dished out seven helpers, which now makes him the single-season record holder in that category. He now has 184 assists through 30 games, surpassing Sean Dent, who finished with 183 during the 1986-87 campaign. Hats off to one of the quiet superstars this program has ever seen.
* No one saw Thompson coming off the bench and effortlessly stroking a trio of threes, right? Maybe some UNLV fans aren't all that surprised. In five career games against the Rebels, the 6-foot-10 junior (he's a junior eligibility wise, just like Maldonado and Jeffries) has averaged 10.2 points per game. As a freshman, Thompson torched UNLV for 17 in Las Vegas. Last season, he netted a dozen in the season finale in Laramie.
* Ike is in an offensive slump. Since going a perfect 11-of-11 from the field against Air Force on Feb. 19, he has sank just 21 of his last 59 shots. That's under 36% from the floor in four critical games, in which the Cowboys are just 1-3. Ike, for the most part, has been solid on the defensive end of the floor, snagging 45 rebounds during that time frame. Pokes need more offensive production from him with the Mountain West Tournament a week away.
* How does Jeffries take just six shots in such an important outing? Sure, UNLV focused on the sharp shooter, but attempting just one three in the late in the first half -- one he made and turned into a four-point play -- simply can't happen. At one point this season, Jeffries was the top 3-point shooter in the nation as far as percentage goes. Now, he ranks 15th, hitting at a 43% clip. He's too dangerous to be held in check like this, especially when he's nailed 14 threes over the previous three games. Linder and Co. have to find a way to get him involved. With his athleticism, it's a wonder he doesn't take the ball to the rack more anyway. He's more than just a trigger man.
* It's been 6,969 days since the Cowboys won a regular-season game against the Rebels in Las Vegas. Yes, you read that right. UW has lost 19 straight games at UNLV. The last victory came way back in February of 2003. Yikes. In fact, the Rebels own this series in general. Tonight was their 42nd win over the Pokes. Wyoming has returned the favor just 19 times in a series that dates back to 1966.
* For the 14th time this season, UW held a team under 40% shooting. UNLV capped its night, hitting 38.2% of its shots. San Diego State finished at 41% Monday night, but hit just 30% of its attempts in the second half after lighting the Cowboys up for 44 points in the first half, led by Matt Bradley's 20 in 20 minutes. It's not Wyoming's defense that has cost them games of late.
* Wyoming attempted just 12 free throws tonight, connecting on eight of those. Ike, who has gone to the line only twice in the previous three games, made two trips in Vegas. Maldonado attempted seven. These two have made a living at the line this season and both still rank in the top five in attempts. There needs to be more. Linder was asked about Ike's struggles of late, responding with "next question." Clearly he feels his big guy is getting mugged. So do his teammates. Still, Ike has to fight through it and find a way. You can read more about that right HERE.
* Last, but certainly not least, I'm sure you are wondering if the Cowboys are still earmarked for their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2015. Great question. Before the loss to UNLV, all the experts still had Wyoming in the Big Dance. After this setback, we'll have to wait and see. Linder, for one, isn't losing sleep over the Cowboys chances. "No, I mean, at the end of the day you just have to focus on the next game," he said. "Our league is so good. For us to be, what, 12-5 in the league, in one of the top six or seven leagues in the country, I think that probably speaks for itself."
* Wyoming scorers: Maldonado 22, Ike 14, Thompson 9, Jeffries 7, Brendan Wenzel 5
* Mountain West standings
** Boise State: 24-6, 15-2
Colorado State: 23-4, 13-4
San Diego State: 19-7, 11-4
Wyoming: 23-7, 12-5
UNLV: 18-12, 10-7
Fresno State: 18-10, 8-7
Utah State: 16-14, 7-10
Nevada: 12-16, 6-11
New Mexico: 12-18, 4-12
Air Force: 11-17, 4-13
San Jose State: 8-21, 1-16
** Mountain West regular-season champions, No. 1 seed at conference tournament