Tuck’s 10 Takes: Resilient Cowboys can’t dig out of early hole
LAS VEGAS, Nev., -- The hole was just too big.
Boise State's defense, suffocating. The offense, potent. The veteran leadership, evident.
One day, after a few birthdays, we could be saying these same things about the Wyoming Cowboys. Not yet. Not consistently, anyway.
The Broncos are old.
"Really old," Jeff Linder quipped with a slight grin.
Old teams win in March.
Leon Rice's team did just that Friday night inside the Thomas & Mack Center, blitzing this young Wyoming squad with an early offensive assault and holding on for the 68-61 victory in the semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament.
Boise State will play San Diego State in tomorrow night's conference title game.
The waiting game has just begun for the Pokes.
Did they do enough to receive an at-large bid to next week's NCAA Tournament? Are the late losses down the stretch -- five in the last nine games -- too much to overcome? Linder sure doesn't think so. The university is even prematurely throwing a watch party in Laramie on Selection Sunday in hopes the Cowboys name will be called.
According to Rice, Linder's boss for seven seasons in Boise, it's not even a question.
"They're going to be in," he said postgame. "No doubt about it."
Graham Ike led the Cowboys with 18 points in the loss to the Broncos. Hunter Maldonado and Drake Jeffries added 17. Most of that damage came late. Too late. The regular-season champs clamped down on the Cowboys from the start, building a 10-2 lead and eventually ballooning that to 17 points early in the second half.
Most of the Broncos' offensive damage came from three players -- Abu Kigab, Mladen Armus and Naje Smith. How good was that trio? They combined to for 35 first-half points on 13-of-18 shooting. They added five triples, reeled in 13 rebounds and didn't turn the ball over once time.
The other players on the roster: 1-for-11, two points.
Maldonado shouldered most of the blame for Kigab's big night.
"It was mostly on me, to be honest," he said of the guard's 22-point outing. "I've got to be a little more on edge to start out the game and make sure he doesn't hit the first two or three. But, at the end of the day, he's just an experienced player and he knows championship basketball."
Apparently Ike sparked the Broncos' 6-foot-10 Serbian after blowing him off for a pregame handshake. He responded by scoring 16 points while going a perfect 6-of-6 from the field. For good measure, he also pulled down 13 rebounds and added a career-high four steals.
When asked if that had anything to do with his outing, he learned forward, smiled and said "yeah, I did."
"He took it personal," Kigab added.
The composure, coupled with aggression and a relentless attitude on the defensive end of the floor, sets the Broncos apart.
Linder hopes his team can look similar one day.
"Yeah, in time," he said. "... They've been in school for a long time, and sometimes it takes some time to get past all the BS that they hear and some of the things that are put on them, and you just get to a point where you just want to win. They don't care about anything else but trying to find a way to win and you can see that with that group.
"I think that's what separated them this year."
Here are some other interesting tidbits and takeaways from this one:
* Kigab shot the ball, arched his right wrist and admired his work. Why not? With 18:45 to go, the senior gave Boise State its largest lead of the night at 17. Maldonado raced down the court on the following possession and easily laid it up and in. It was one of the rare gimmes of the night. It also showed that this young squad was not going down without a fight. It didn't. Wyoming outscored the Broncos 38-31 over the final 20 minutes and even got the game to within three points with just 31 ticks on the clock. Marcus Shaver hit a free throw. Emmanuel Akot did, too. It was just enough. That effort though. That was special. "We talk about resiliency and grit and effort," Jeffries said. "Super proud of the guys. Obviously, it's hard to win games in any setting. It was a tough one, and I'm just glad that we didn't give up. We had no quit in us. We fought until the end."
* With 3:17 left in regulation, Jeremiah Oden's foot touched the end line. The referee was right on top of it. Wyoming trailed by 12 at that point. That was not only a wasted possession -- and the ugliest of the Cowboys' 16 turnovers on the night -- it seemed like a fitting moment for this night. Would have been really easy to throw in the towel then, right? "Credit to our guys," Linder said. "We always talk about response and what our response is going to be, whether that's success or failure or adversity. Those guys never wavered and that's what allowed us to really give ourselves a chance. It wasn't one play. It's just more the character of our team."
* Wyoming shot just 38% from the field in the first half. Brendan Wenzel and Jeffries hit the only triples on 12 team attempts. It was rough sledding against one of the toughest defensive teams in the country. That side of the ball is why Boise State won a title this season, could win the tourney tomorrow and likely will make noise in the NCAA's. "It was definitely suffocating," Jeffries said. "I'm used to it by now. Guys are just tugging on my jersey and there was no space."
* With Friday's loss, the Cowboys are now 16-22 all time in the Mountain West Tournament. This conference has been around since 1998. Wyoming has won the tourney once and made just two appearances. Air Force, San Jose State, Colorado State and Boise State are the only teams in the league without a championship. The Broncos will make their first trip to the title game Friday afternoon.
* A day after hitting the game-winning 3-pointer, Xavier DuSell was held off the scoresheet. Wyoming's point guard attempted just five shots in the loss -- four from beyond the arc -- and was held without a point for the third time in five games. That can't happen, especially in March. No one knows that better than the man himself.
* It's hard not to like Kigab. One, he's a great player. Two, he showed his personal side in the postgame, stopping himself, he said, before the tears flowed. The Ontario, Canada native hadn't seen his mother or younger brother in more than two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time since he's been in college, they were both in attendance in Las Vegas to watching Kigab play. "It was a surreal feeling," he said, a wide smile creasing his face. "I can't even -- it was euphoria. That's how I describe it. She means so much to me. Growing up, just watching her struggle every day, she always puts that smile on her face. I've never seen anyone work harder than her." Awesome moment for the Kigab family.
* Linder wants his program to look like this current one at Boise State. Rice thinks he's on the right track. "Whatever pieces he has, he finds a way to win," he said. "There was no quit in that team. We had them in a deep hole and they did not quit. We had to make enough free throws down the stretch to finish it, and it's a credit to him and his staff."
* You might not sleep very well awaiting Wyoming fate in the NCAA Tournament, but Linder seemed confident Friday that his Cowboys will still go dancing. "I'll sleep pretty well, but at the same time, crazier things have happened," he said. "We're looking forward to hopefully hearing our name and see what happens."
* Wyoming will be hosting a party for Selection Sunday at the Gateway Center in Laramie. Doors open at 3:30 p.m. and the event is open to the public. I want to hear your gut feeling on whether or not the Pokes did enough to enter the madness. I think they are in.
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