Tuck’s 10 Takes: Pokes end regular season with a senior moment
LARAMIE -- "I'm not going out like that."
Those were the thoughts flooding through Hunter Maldonado's mind before he toed the line to attempt to free throw shots with 0.2 left in regulation and the Cowboys trailing 57-55.
A pair of swishes later and Wyoming was in its fourth overtime of the season.
They were 3-0 in the extra frame.
They're still perfect.
Maldonado netted five in those final five minutes and Jeremiah Oden sank his fourth triple of the game to help lead Wyoming to a 68-64 victory over Fresno State in front of 6,230 in attendance inside the Arena-Auditorium.
This loss likely kept the Pokes off the bubble come selection Sunday. It also solidified the No. 4 seed at next week's Mountain West Tournament where UW will take on UNLV Thursday at 3:30 p.m. MT.
"When we huddled up, everyone's just like, 'alright, we're going to overtime,'" said Maldonado, who didn't score his first point in this one until the 1:34 mark of the second half and finished with 10 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. "I knew I had to step up and knock it down. Like I said, I'm not going out like that."
Xavier DuSell, who led the Cowboys with 22 points on 5-of-13 shooting from beyond the arc, smiled when asked about his nerves when the captain strolled to the line.
"Well, I don't know if you guys could see it on the court or if there's a clip of it somewhere, I was just walking behind him, just chillin'," he said. "I mean, I knew both of those were going in. We didn't have any choice but for them to go in.
"I had all faith he was going to make those. I was just ready to go into overtime."
Maldonado, who before the game was honored alongside fellow seniors Drake Jeffries and Hunter Thompson, has not made up his mind yet whether or not that was his last game in Laramie.
He played a majority of this game with a facemask thanks to a scratched left cornea he sustained last Wednesday night in Las Vegas. Despite the goose egg in the points column next to his name throughout, the Colorado Springs native saved his best for last.
Was his head coach feeling the pressure of those two critical freebies?
"I was probably a little bit more nervous at the one-minute mark when he went to the line and missed two," Jeff Linder said with a grin. "For whatever reason, when he went to the line there at the end, I kind of had a calmness that he was going to step up.
"I mean, he's earned that moment here and that opportunity for him to be able to step up and make those shots."
Maldonado wasn't the only senior to step up in OT, either.
With Graham Ike on the bench with five fouls, Thompson took on the daunting task of banging away with Fresno State's Orlando Robinson inside the paint over the final five minutes.
Robinson, who finished with a game-high 34 points -- 10 of which came at the free-throw line and 12 more from three -- was limited to just five in overtime. Thompson also drew a charge that helped continue a 7-0 run.
"He's a million, infinity type percent in. That's how you have a good team," Linder said, referring to Thompson's sacrifices and dedication to his teammates. "For him to be able to impact winning, you know, when he gets the brunt of a lot of crap, especially being from Wyoming (is special). You know, everyone expects him to be something that he hasn't been or wasn't.
"For him to have that moment and for me to be able to see his face afterwards, knowing that he helped us win that game, I mean, I'll take that image with me for the rest of my life."
Wyoming, who finished the season 14-1 in Laramie this season, moves to 24-7 overall and 13-5 in Mountain West play. This is the 13th time in history this program has eclipsed the 24-win mark.
Here are some other interesting tidbits and takeaways from the Pokes win over the Bulldogs:
* You might have noticed something looked different about DuSell today. No, I'm not talking about the new haircut, which he said he chopped off his locks to get a "fresh start" and do away with the whole "hair identity" thing. I'm referring to the freshman guard putting up five straight 3-point attempts to start this game. The Arizona product flushed three of those and went on to lead the offensive charge in this one. He also sank two critical free throws in overtime with just 6.9 seconds remaining. DuSell took just five shots in Wednesday night's loss to the Rebels. All five missed. Linder, as he's known to do, issued a challenge to DuSell -- shoot the ball. "Coach has just been getting on me lately, you know, saying I have to bring more to the team," DuSell said. "Obviously, that's something that I know internally, as well. So, tonight, I just was like, might as well come out guns blazing and see what happens." Good things. Wyoming needs DuSell to get it going on the offensive end of the floor if they hope to make a run in Sin City and beyond.
* Really nice touch today from Linder inserting Thompson into the starting lineup in what could be his final home game in a UW uniform. The big man from Pine Bluffs, who is still undecided whether he will come back next season, drained a triple in the first half and has now hit four of those over his last two games. Wyoming's all-time record against UNLV might not be pretty (42-19), but Thompson is averaging double-figures (10.2) against the Rebels in five-career games. He also loves shooting inside the Thomas & Mack Center where he has played eight games and averages nine points per outing (44% shooting), including a pair of 17-point outings.
* Robinson is a special player. Not only did he carry the load for the Bulldogs today, he nailed four triples and hit 10-of-14 free throws. Remember when Ike's numbers looked like that? What sets the 7-footer apart aside from his smooth shooting and ability to make hay in the paint, is he somehow managed to not pick up his first foul until there was just 2:57 left in regulation. "He's tough to guard," Linder said. "When you're seven-foot with his skill level, I mean, really all you're doing is trying to make it as hard as possible. Knowing a guy like him, you know, a pro (player), you're just at the mercy of him making or missing."
* Jeffries attempted just one shot in the first half today for the second straight game in a row. He finished 1-of-6 from the floor. That was a 3-pointer. The Illinois product finished with just four points. Linder and Co. need to get this guy in a rhythm earlier in games. He's too good a shooter to land these types of outings.
* Free throws were a non-issue in the first half of this one. DuSell sank both of his, the Cowboys' lone two shots of the first half. Fresno State attempted just one. That changed in a big way over the final 25 minutes. Wyoming finished 13-of-20 and the Bulldogs sank 11-of-17.
* Lost in DuSell's offensive outburst was the job he did defensively on Isaiah Hill. The junior guard came into today averaging 10.3 points per game. DuSell helped hold him to just seven, all of which came late in the second half. "Last time we played him, he kind of had his way with us," DuSell said, referring to Hill's 25-point performance on Feb. 6. "So, I wanted to take pride in making sure that he didn't have the same game he had back in Fresno."
* It's not often the Cowboys get their doors blown off in paint production. It's also not often UW faces a talent like Robinson. The Bulldogs scored 28 inside. Wyoming, just 18. Fresno State held a 12-2 advantage in that category in the first half.
* Linder took some time to reminisce as he sat down for his postgame press conference. "You know, a lot of people back in the spring, summer time kind of thought that we lost guys and we were going to take a step back not really realizing the true character, the true heart and the true talent of his team," he said. "We were picked to finish eighth or ninth in the league. Those guys in the locker room, they knew different. For them to do what they've done this year, for them to go out and prove people wrong and for them to just battle ... They knew their backs were against the wall and they knew that this game was a must. We had to win this game to just make sure that we put ourselves in the right position (for the NCAA Tournament).
* It couldn't end any other way than this, right? Wyoming has played in so many close games this season that could have gone either way. At times, it has seemed like this team was living on borrowed time. Then, they'd win another one they probably weren't supposed to. What a ride it has been. Season No. 2 starts Thursday in Sin City.
* Wyoming's scorers: DuSell 21, Ike 16, Oden 14, Maldonado 10, Jeffries 4, Thompson 3
* Mountain West standings:
** Boise State: 24-6, 15-2
Colorado State: 23-4, 13-4
San Diego State: 20-7, 12-4
Wyoming: 24-7, 13-5
UNLV: 18-12, 10-7
Fresno State: 18-12, 8-9
Utah State: 17-14, 8-10
Nevada: 12-16, 6-11
New Mexico: 12-18, 4-12
Air Force: 11-17, 4-13
San Jose State: 8-22, 1-17