Tuck’s 10 takes: Oden sparks comeback, Maldo saves the day
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., -- The backdoor boredom was starting to set in.
Air Force, like it has been known to do, connected on two of those easy passes-turned-into layups in a row and followed that up with back-to-back buckets to take an early 22-13 lead. The home team was sinking 53% of its shots. Jeff Linder's squad, 33%. That included hitting just 1 triple in seven tries.
Wyoming didn't improve much in that category, connecting on an uncharacteristic 2-of-16 from beyond the arc.
The Boise State hangover appeared to be in full swing.
That is until Jeremiah Oden went to work.
Wyoming's 6-foot-8 freshman snagged his first offensive rebound off a Brendan Wenzel miss. His second came courtesy of a Hunter Thompson misfire. The Chicago product gobbled up that board, too, and this time, instead of dishing to a teammate, went hard to the rack, drawing the contact and sinking the contested lay in with 5:40 remaining in the first half.
Oden pumped his right fist and yelled in the direction of the visiting bench.
It was the wake-up call the Cowboys desperately needed in Friday's 63-61 victory over Air Force inside Clune Arena. A Hunter Maldonado layup high off the glass as time expired sealed the deal. The Colorado Springs native, who was starting his 100th-career game at UW, was mobbed by his teammates under the hoop.
"That's the beauty of JO, he's always ready to go. The ability to go get those offensive boards -- make those winning plays -- and to be able to use his length and his athleticism, I mean, that's what we need," Linder said, adding that any points he gets is a bonus. "Thankfully, he's such a good kid that some games he might (play more) and some games it might be less, but it never wavers in terms of his attitude or his work ethic."
Wyoming is now 16-3 overall and 5-1 in Mountain West play with the top two teams in the league -- Colorado State and Boise State -- on the docket next week in Laramie, beginning with a much-anticipated Border War matchup Monday night.
Linder now has 12 road wins in 17 games as the head man in Laramie.
Maldonado, who finished with a team-high 31 points, rattled off 13 of the next 15 after that Oden sequence and the Pokes turned that nine-point first-half deficit into a three-point lead at the break.
Oden finished his night with nine points and eight rebounds, including six on the offensive end of the floor. Graham Ike, who was hampered by foul trouble and a swarming Air Force defense, netted just 10 points and pulled down nine boards.
As always, this Air Force squad was a scrappy bunch. An AJ Walker triple with 7.9 seconds left tied this one at 61-61 after the Falcons trailed by as many as 11 in the second half.
They just forgot to get in Maldonado's way as he went coast to coast for the winner.
Here's what else stood out in this one:
* How clutch was that drive and kiss off the glass at the buzzer from this team's leader? Not to mention it happened in his hometown with his friends and family there to witness it, littering the corner of Clune Arena. Some wondered if he got the shot off in time. He did. Some wonder if he traveled. He didn't. There was no doubt who was getting the ball in that moment, either. "In those situations, knowing that the other team doesn't want to foul, I just told Maldo to just get as far down the floor as possible, knowing we have shooters in the corner," Linder said. "And then we had JO and Graham basically right behind him for the offensive rebound ... We work on that shot. I mean, that above-the-square shot -- not necessarily that far distance -- but that's a shot that we've worked on a bunch in terms of our finishing stuff. It was, it was good to see."
* Let's hear from the man himself. Maldonado, typically stoic and unemotional, was every bit as calm speaking with reporters as he was making that winning bucket. "A special ending, obviously," Maldonado said. "I think this is the most people I've ever had come watch me ... It was definitely something special and definitely something I'll member for the rest of my life." Special moment, special player.
* Xavier DuSell played in his first game since the Cowboys knocked off Utah State 71-69 back on Jan. 15. The freshman guard suffered a hamstring strain on the final defensive possession for the Pokes in Logan. DuSell, who played 21 minutes Friday, finished this one with just two points on 1-of-4 shooting. He missed all three of his shots from deep. This was the perfect game to get DuSell back in action with UW set to host two of the top teams in the league this week. He didn't appear limited at all and played his normal brand of hard-nosed defense. Good sign for Linder and Co. On the flip side, fellow guard Kenny Foster was in street clothes on the sideline. The sophomore has dealing with a high-ankle sprain and an illness throughout the season. He's played in just nine game, including a three-minute stretch last Tuesday night in Boise. His status for the CSU matchup is unclear.
* Wyoming outrebounded the much-smaller Falcons, 36-25. That's no surprise. The dominance on the offensive glass, however, was a gamechanger. The Pokes held a 15-4 advantage in that category, led by six from Oden alone. Ike added four. That led to plenty of second-chance points for the visitors. Wyoming won that battle, 16-7. Entering the game, the Cowboys ranked 328th in the country out of 350 Division-I teams in offensive rebounds per game with just 7.4. "We talked about winning the battle on the glass," Linder said. "Having won the battle at Boise, plus three, and to turn around and be plus-11 here and get 15 offensive rebounds really helped offset some things ... You're never going to play your best on the road in this league. Man, it's hard. It's really hard. You just have to find ways to win games and I thought our guys stuck together."
* For those who don't know, COVID-19 has forced the beat writers up into the stands inside the Arena-Auditorium. Player safety, you know? Well, that didn't happen at the Academy. We sat court side, and, boy, was it fun to watch Air Force head coach Joe Scott and Linder go at it with the refs. Let's put it this way, Linder thinks No. 22 Nikc Jackson -- yes that first name is spelled right -- "is a flopper." He screamed it on the court and reiterated it in his postgame press conference. "I mean, I showed Graham 50 clips of him, falling and flopping and doing what he does," he said. "It's just unfortunate when that happens and you take out a player the caliber of Graham ... Give them credit for doing that -- it worked to a certain degree." Ike played just 23 minutes in this one and racked up four fouls.
* Free throws are becoming an issue for this bunch. Tired legs? Possibly. Still, the Cowboys' combined 71% shooting from the charity stripe must improve. UW missed eight freebies Friday (19-of-27), including four late in the second half. Maldonado was just 13-of-19 from the line. Brendan Wenzel and Ike both missed one, too. Might not seem like anything too crazy, but Tuesday night in Boise, UW failed to covert five from the stripe. It lost by three. They all count.
* It's hard to believe Wyoming won a road game when it hit just two threes, Ike netted just 10, the team turned the ball over 13 times and dished out just five assists. Games aren't played on paper. If they were, the Cowboys -- and their 40% shooting night -- probably suffer a second straight loss. This one wasn't pretty. It rarely is in this building. This young team just keeps finding ways to end up in the win column.
* Though the Maldonado fan club was out in full force, the UW faithful were proud -- and loud -- Friday in the Springs. Linder certainly took notice. "Big shout out to Poke Nation for showing up down here in Colorado Springs," he said. "It was almost like a home crowd. It was great seeing the gold in the stands. Maybe there might have been more gold than blue." I wouldn't go that far, but it is good to see Wyoming basketball fans traveling again. It's been a minute.
* Speaking of attendance, you might have heard -- the Cowboys have a big one Monday night inside the Arena-Auditorium. Yes, it's a week night. Yes, it's a 6 p.m. tip. But, it's CSU. It's the Border War, one of the more meaningful ones in recent memory, too. Linder wants you there. In fact, he wants a sellout. "Hopefully we'll see an environment there that maybe we haven't seen in a long, long, long time," he said, referring to the rival Rams as the "sheep." "... There better not be a lot of green in the Dome of Doom on Monday. That's a challenge to everybody in Laramie. That's everybody in Cheyenne, everybody in the state. We need you. I mean, I'm not sure when the last time that place has been sold out, but, man, it would sure be nice to have 12,000 people there on Monday. It'll be a hell of a basketball game." Wyoming hasn't come close to a sellout since the 2003 season. That year, four games -- CSU, BYU, New Mexico and San Diego State -- featured crowds of more than 11,000. Get there. This team is worth the price of admission.
* Wyoming's scorers: Maldonado 31, Ike 10, Oden 9, Jeffries 7, Wenzel 4, DuSell 2
* Mountain West men's basketball standings:
Boise State: 16-4, 7-0
Wyoming: 16-3, 5-1
Colorado State: 16-2, 6-2
Fresno State: 14-5, 4-2
San Diego State: 11-5, 3-2
Nevada: 9-8, 3-3
UNLV: 12-9, 4-4
Air Force: 10-9, 3-5
Utah State: 11-9, 2-5
New Mexico: 8-13, 1-7
San Jose State: 7-12, 0-7