Tuck’s Takes: A Legacy of Loyalty on Display in Laramie
LARAMIE -- The look on Hunter Maldonado's face said it all. If that didn't hammer home the point, waiving his arms in defiance toward the Wyoming bench solidified it.
There was zero chance he was coming out of this game.
With 12:18 to go, the Colorado Springs product received his fourth personal foul. A handful of ticks later, Jeff Linder was also on the receiving end of a whistle. It was a technical foul. Wyoming's third-year head coach was arguing the charge call on his senior point guard.
"If he was coming out, I was going out," Linder said when asked why he didn't sit Maldonado down with so much time left on the clock. "Maldo is smart enough to make sure that he doesn't put himself in harm's way. I'm just thankful that he was able to finish the game."
Boy, did he ever.
Playing in his final game inside the Arena-Auditorium, Maldonado netted 25 points. Thirteen of those came at the free-throw line. An aggressive game plan also led to an 11-assist outing. For good measure, he also snagged nine rebounds, one short of a triple-double.
Oh, by the way, the Cowboys rolled to an impressive 80-71 victory over Nevada, putting a serious dent in the visitor's NCAA Tournament hopes.
Like Maldonado's career in Laramie, it's only fitting that this game featured, well, a little bit of everything.
That technical foul, seven lead changes, five ties, questionable calls (there were 43 total calls on the night), turnovers in droves and plenty of extended runs, the largest for the Cowboys an 11-0 spurt to cap the first half. Here's another impactful stat: 4. That's how many shots Nevada sank on its final 21 attempts from the field. Mixed into that mess was an 8-minute scoring draught.
It was all punctuated with a breakaway, windmill dunk off the right hand of Jeremiah Oden, who finished with a career-high 28 points.
This is what the Wyoming Cowboys were supposed to look like this season.
The Wolf Pack shot just 41% from the field. UW won the rebounding battle, 37-27. It also connected on 10 shots from deep, including a perfect 3-for-3 night from Oden. His splash at the 2:03 mark proved to be the insurmountable dagger. Points in the paint (26-22), second-chance points (8-6) and blocks (4-2) also belonged to the Pokes.
Effort. Grit. Want.
"They are going to play really, really hard and there's going to be a certain level of discipline and effort," Linder said. "When you have the right guys, everybody pushing in the same direction, that's the result."
This team has had every excuse in the book to pack it in.
The injury woes are well documented. Graham Ike, the preseason Mountain West Player of the Year, never once stepped foot on the court after suffering what would turn out to be a season-ending right foot injury he sustained in late October. Noah Reynolds was also shutdown late in the season after suffering his third concussion in six months. He was the team's leading scorer at the time.
There have been other ailments, too.
Hunter Thompson, who also played his final game tonight inside the Double-A, fought a bout with mononucleosis, his third such diagnosis during his tenure in Laramie. Kenny Foster underwent midseason back surgery. Brendan Wenzel, Oden, Maldonado also missed time.
Then there was the unexpected exodus.
All three offseason PAC-12 transfers -- Ethan Anderson, Jake Kyman and Max Agbonkpolo -- rode out of town less than 24 hours before the Cowboys hosted UNLV. A brief press release said they were no longer with the program. Sources, multiple sources, said they left on their own accord.
That left Wyoming with just seven scholarship players at the time. Only Xavier DuSell has appeared in every single game this season.
There are a few reasons this team continued to push forward: Pride and loyalty come to mind. In fact, those have been buzz words around this building since early February.
There's another one, too: Maldonado.
Linder has said repeatedly his star guard could've cashed in at a different program after netting 20 and pulling down 10 boards a night while leading the Pokes to the NCAA Tournament last March. He could've went pro. Hell, he could've told Linder "no" back in the spring of 2020 when he drove to his home to re-recruit him after the previous staff was canned.
Now, Maldonado is the only player in program history with more than 2,000 points, 800 rebounds and 600 helpers.
Speaking of assists, tonight he became the conference's all-time leader in that category, surpassing New Mexico's Kendall Williams. Think about some of the names he passes on the way: Oscar Bellfield (UNLV), Dairese Gary (New Mexico), Jimmer Fredette (BYU) and Sam Merrill (Utah State), among many, many others.
Maldonado and Thompson sported white hard hats with Steamboat logos in their postgame press conference. That award is given to the hardest-working players on the court that night. Let's be real, those weren't going to anyone else after this one.
They shouldn't, either. They were earned.
Maldonado's number speak for themselves, but Thompson pulled down a career-high 13 rebounds and scored 10 points, including a huge triple with 3:36 remaining to extend the Cowboys lead, 67-62.
"Obviously, it felt really, really good," Maldonado said when asked what this victory meant to him, adding a thank you to his teammates and staff for never "quitting on him." "... Like I said, there's no better way to go out."
Thompson said he became more emotional than he thought he would during the pregame ceremony. It was still resting on his sleeve as he spoke with the media after.
"It's always a good feeling to come through for your team, especially on senior night," he said. "Definitely I'll remember it for the rest of my life."
These two careers you just witnessed -- nearly 300 games worth -- were special. Rarely, if ever, will you see this type of longevity again in the game of college basketball. The transfer portal and NIL temptations are the main culprits for that. Linder calls this duo a "dying breed." That's why he's always willing and eager to tell anyone in ear shot what they meant to his program.
"There's not many people anymore that leave a legacy," he said. "That's what those guys left. When they walked down to come to a game, people are going to be patting them on the back and they're going to know who they are. When they walk through the football tailgate in September, people are going to be coming up to them like they come up to Reggie Slater and Fennis Dembo and all the great players that have played here before them.
"You know, they have a home. There's a lot of people nowadays in college basketball that don't have a home. Basically they're just renting a condo. A lot of timeshare guys."
From all of us, Thank you, Maldo and Thompson.
* Wyoming scorers: Oden 28, Maldonado 25, DuSell 11, Thompson 10, Wenzel 6
* You probably noticed Ike on the sideline tonight. He basically came to pay his respects. Plenty of his 778 career points have come courtesy of a Maldonado assist. Linder was quick to point out what that appearance says about the big man, who is still undergoing treatment in the Denver area. "Thank him for coming up," Linder said. "... You know, he didn't have to make the drive up, but you know what, that shows his character. To sit there and knowing that he's been through a lot with those two guys."
* Linder was asked if he thinks this performance will inspire Ike to have a senior night of his own in Laramie one day? "We miss him," he said, adding that Ike got the ball 30 times in last season's meeting against Nevada on the high plains, "but at the same time, you know, he's got to make sure that he's as healthy as possible. I look forward to seeing him back on the court someday here down the road."
* Wyoming (9-20, 4-13) will close out the regular season Saturday at 19th-ranked San Diego State (23-5, 14-2). Tipoff is slated for 8 p.m. and the game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.