Tuck’s Take: Wenzel’s Gritty Effort Leads to Unlikely Comeback
LARAMIE -- Until the 14:26 mark of the second half, the annual baby crawl was the most exciting event Saturday inside this building.
That was followed very closely by the Christmas teddy bear toss.
Visiting Stephen F. Austin's lead swelled to double digits and a 7-0 run served as a real threat to turn this one into a blowout. Jeff Linder said he knew this game would be frustrating, comparing it to a dentist visit.
Passing lanes were clogged. The Lumberjack's front court, which features three players who stand 6-foot-8 and above, was active. Turnovers, yeah, those were once again plentiful. The Cowboys handed out 20.
Luckily for Linder's squad, SFA returned the favor in that department.
"They're still trying to figure some things out, but they're a really old team. They have a lot of experience. They've won a lot of games," Wyoming's head coach said of SFA after his team scratched out a gritty 78-70 come-from-behind victory in Laramie. "We told our guys at halftime that it just wasn't good enough. I mean, Stephen F. Austin was a tougher team. If you wanted the chance to win in this game, in the second half, we have to show that we're the tougher team."
Brendan Wenzel embodied exactly what his coach was referring to.
The junior guard missed last Tuesday's blowout win over South Dakota Mines with an undisclosed illness. It lingered. Wenzel was just cleared to resume basketball activities Friday.
Laboring, coughing and visibly in discomfort on the home bench, the San Antonio product put that all on the backburner down the stretch.
Wenzel mashed the gas and drove the lane just seconds after the visitors matched their biggest lead of the afternoon. He was rejected -- and fouled. After sinking a pair of free throws, Wenzel then stepped in front of a drive of his own, planted his feet and slid across the floor inside the Arena-Auditorium.
On the surface, it might appear Wenzel had an off day.
He hit a triple in the opening seconds. It was his lone make of the afternoon. He did add four free throws on a perfect day at the line, but finished with a pair of fouls and two turnovers.
What you don't see in those postgame stats are the charges. He took three. He also pulled down four rebounds and dished out a trio of assists, including a key helper on a late 12-2 run.
Guard Sam Griffin found running mate Akuel Kot all alone in the corner on the ensuing possession. Instead of firing up a shot, he faked, went under and kicked it to Wenzel, who found Griffin all alone at the top of the arc.
"To still have all the junk in his lungs, and for him to fight through and do what he did, I mean, that might have been the best game of his college career," Linder said. "... To be sick like he is, but for him to fight through it and to put in that kind of effort, especially on a team that's really physical that tries to get the ball inside (was special)."
Thanks to yet another Griffin triple -- he finished with three of those -- the Cowboys took their first lead of the half, 62-59. A technical foul assessed to SFA head coach Kyle Keller led to a free throw from Kobe Newton. He would add his second 3-pointer of the afternoon moments later.
After trailing 51-41, Wyoming capped its sixth victory of the season on a 37-19 run.
Griffin ended his day with a game-high 23 points of 5-of-10 shooting. He made all 10 of his shots from the charity stripe. He hauled in five rebounds and assisted on five other buckets.
He had another one in him, too.
"I mean, his box says 20," Griffin said of Wenzel referring to the margin of points UW scored with him on the court. "You see his contribution to the team, his size and how hard he plays. I mean, he probably had like three chargers, defensive rebounds, then he's probably guarding the best player every night. So, he's one heck of a player to play with and it makes it easier for us in the backcourt and in the paint, for sure."
Kot finished with 19 points on 6-of-15 shooting and Newton netted 14 off the bench, including a trio of triples. Cam Manyawu was 6-of-9 from the field and scored a dozen and Caden Powell hauled in 10 rebounds on his 20th birthday.
This team can be maddening.
The turnovers, at times, are sloppy, careless and unforced. Linder said 20 empty possessions will surely lead to losses in Mountain West play. That's obvious. Finishing at the rim has also been problematic. SFA outscored Wyoming 34-24 in the paint.
This was just one of those games, Griffin said.
There have been far too many of "those games" early on.
We can knit pick all day long -- the Cowboys gave up 14 second-chance points, seven more on the fast break and the bench was outscored, 41-14 -- but let's be real, last year's squad likely doesn't overcome a deficit like that, let alone in the second half. This current roster, not even complete yet without the services of former NAIA National Player of the Year Mason Walters (hand), has played a grand total of nine games together.
"Just us staying together and not panicking," Newton said, referring to the comeback. "We stayed poised and remained together. I think that was the main thing. I think this is a good, really resilient team. When things go wrong, we do a good job of staying together and not turning against one another. We just focused on getting stops, one possession at a time, because we know we're a good offensive team.
"For us to get stops and limit them to one shot and make sure we box out, once we did that, then you saw us kind of take off from there."
It sure did.