Tuck’s Take: Pokes Show They Belong in Latest Setback
SAN DIEGO, Calif., -- At face value, this was just another lopsided San Diego State victory.
The bullies of the Mountain West were at it again, tormenting yet another opponent. Wyoming is a favorite victim of Brian Dutcher's gang. They have now claimed 11 straight in the series after an 81-65 win Tuesday night inside a rowdy Viejas Arena.
Wedgies, swirlies and wet willies are the norm inside that building.
Not in this one.
There were certainly some elements of scourge, including turning 15 turnovers into 19 points on the scoreboard. The Aztecs ruled the paint with the visitors in foul trouble, outscoring the Cowboys, 34-22. One of these teams has a deep bench and was rewarded with 17 more points from the warmers on 7-of-14 shooting.
The other, Wyoming, was just three-deep and capped the night with a single bucket.
How did San Diego State, a team that appeared in last year's national title game, not totally dominate this game?
Those stats above don't always tell the full story.
"I think that obviously we're getting better," Wyoming head coach Jeff Linder said postgame. "I think that's the only thing that matters right now, because there are a lot of teams this time of year, they start trending in the other direction. I think we're actually trending in the right direction. So, we just have to continue to keep getting a little bit better each day and we have a chance to do something as the season goes on."
This mishmash of a roster wasn't intimidated one bit in this one. Despite going down eight thanks to an early barrage of triples, the Cowboys stayed in their half-court offense and began to chip away.
Mason Walters was a load down low, scoring 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting. Sam Griffin and Akuel Kot also added a pair of 3-pointers in the first half, combining for 18 points. Crisp passing led to open looks. Even when the shot wasn't there, this guard duo got creative.
These guys looked like they belonged.
While those three were getting it done on the offensive side of the floor, Caden Powell drew the toughest task of the night in guarding the conference's leading scorer Jaedon LeDee. The 6-foot-9 senior is also in the Top 10 in rebounding (8.78) and field-goal percentage (.565).
After 20 minutes, LeDee had just five points and two boards.
It took a last-second turnaround jumper from Darrion Trammel to give the Aztecs a 34-32 edge at the half. That put a bow on a 7-0 run. According to Linder, depth started to play a factor. Having Walters on the bench over the last 6:43 with a pair of fouls didn't help, either.
"We got a little bit tired in the last two-and-a-half minutes," Linder said, adding that the Cowboys were really missing junior guard Kobe Newton, who missed his second straight game with an undisclosed illness. "We got a little bit stagnant."
Wyoming didn't score a single point over the final 4:02 before the break.
While turnovers have plagued this group all season -- Linder's squad averages 16 of those an outing -- bad halves have also led to blowouts or theatrics, including two buzzer-beaters off the right hand of Kot.
For the first two-plus minutes of the second half, it appeared the Cowboys were ready for a 40-minute fist fight. Kot, who finished with 16 points, drilled a triple. Griffin added two more on back-to-back trips down the floor. He led the team with 22 points on the night.
That gave Wyoming a 41-36 lead.
It all fell apart with 17:44 remaining, starting with a third foul call on Powell, who was still doing a masterful job against LeDee.
"I mean, the difference was, in the first half, we were able to keep them out of the paint," Linder said. "We did a good job understanding the scouting report. In the second half they just got in the paint too much. That's obviously why they shot 66%."
LeDee scored the next five points after Powell was summoned to the bench. He finished the night with 17 points and seven boards. The Aztecs went on a 28-8 run over the next 10 minutes, leaving little doubt that the schoolyard still belongs to them.
Linder wasn't focused on the negatives during his postgame press conference. He isn't about to accept a moral victory, either, but there are some reasons for hope after this outing.
The Cowboys won the rebounding battle, 39-29, including a 10-6 edge on the offensive glass. They hit nine shots from beyond the arc. Against the top shooting defense in the Mountain West, Wyoming found plenty of looks, shooting better than 46% from the floor over the first 20 minutes.
The Aztecs went cold from deep, missing 10 straight after hitting their first trio of threes. The Cowboys limited them to just 36.8% shooting in the first frame.
I penned a column before the start of the 2023-24 campaign with one simple request: Play hard and they will come.
That certainly wasn't the issue tonight. Turnovers, again, were.
Limit those, create chaos. This team is more than capable.
"I thought our effort and performance, in one of the tougher places in the country to play, against a very experienced team, I thought our guys battled hard," Linder said. "We probably wore down a little bit, but give credit to San Diego State. That's what they do to teams."
Wyoming is now 10-9 overall and 3-3 in league play. Border War rival Colorado State will pay a visit to the Arena-Auditorium this Saturday. Tipoff is slated for 2 p.m. and the game will be streamed on the Mountain West Network.