Tuck’s Takes: Now That’s More Like It
LARAMIE -- Uninspired. Boring. Lost.
Those are some words you could use to describe this team throughout the first nine games of the season.
Inspired. Fun. Explosive.
Those are just a few -- very few -- adjectives you could use to tell the tale of Wyoming's performance in Saturday night's impressive 92-65 victory over a Louisiana Tech squad that arrived on the high plains on a five-game winning streak.
Who the heck are these guys?
Oh, just a group finally playing up to its potential while awaiting the return of Preseason Mountain West Player of the Year Graham Ike.
"We needed a game like this," said Brendan Wenzel, who scored 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting from beyond the arc. "It came from within. We decided that we have to stop losing and we're not playing how we're supposed to play. Whenever we go out and play like that, we can beat any team in the country."
Noah Reynolds agreed, adding this version of this team will only get better.
"I'm just really proud right of our response to all this," he said after adding 20 points of his own on 7-of-13 shooting. "You know, playing a game like that, it boosts the hell out of your team morale."
Just days after Jeff Linder called out the fanbase for its pedestrian response to a lopsided win over mighty Texas A&M-Commerce -- that's sarcasm, by the way -- it was the Cowboys who finally brought their own energy to the floor in this one.
The passing was crisp and precise. The ball movement was exceptional, keeping the Bulldogs guessing all night long. The effort on defense was what was expected from this group all along. Effort is one of those things you can control when the shots aren't falling, you know?
Did this team have a come-to-Jesus moment this week, or what?
Wenzel laughed and quipped that 10 players on the roster played Call of Duty the night prior. Reynolds joked that it served as team chemistry, even though he wasn't one of the video gamers.
Linder said he was proud of his team's response Saturday night. As for the "big talk," that came last Friday before the shorthanded Cowboys fell at home to Grand Canyon.
"I had to, for lack of a better word, lose my mind on them," Wyoming's third-year head coach said. "You know, it's like making mac and cheese -- you have to boil the water first. Well, I probably made the water boil over. But, you know, I knew some things needed to change."
This roster responded in a big way, winning its last two outings by an average of 21 points. Much of that credit can go to cohesiveness. For just the second time this season, Wyoming's starting lineup didn't have a single change.
Three "leftovers" from the Allen Edwards' era -- Hunter Maldonado, Kenny Foster and Hunter Thompson -- again were out for the opening tip. Joining them was Xavier DuSell and Wenzel.
Those five accounted for 56 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists and a 13-for-13 night from the free-throw line. These guys were responsible for nine of UW's 14 3-points on the night. More importantly, that group turned the ball over just once.
Winning plays -- one of Linder's favorite aspects of his teams -- was on full display in this one.
There were too many to list, but let's talk about a few.
In the opening minutes, Maldonado, who was battling an illness, found himself under pressure on the outskirts of the paint. An open teammate sat atop the key awaiting the pass. Instead, the super senior, with eyes in the back of his head, fired a missile toward the baseline, right into the breadbasket of Foster who skied for the two-handed jam.
Linder joked that this was Foster's first dunk since 2019. He might be right.
Speaking of Foster.
Once again, Maldonado was facing a double-team inside the arc. Instead of looking for an outlet, the senior chucked up a mid-range prayer. It was answered, but that's only because Foster, busting it through the paint, plucked the air ball out of the sky and laid it up and in. He also drilled a three on the next trip down the floor.
Wyoming student section serenaded the senior with chants of "Kenny! Kenny! Kenny!"
Nate Barnhart, a redshirt freshman forward who averages 2.5 minutes per night, blocked a David Green shot at the rim in the first half. He quickly gathered the loose change and pushed an outlet pass up the floor to a streaking Reynolds, who lofted a layup high off the glass and in. He was fouled on the play and sank the freebie.
With 5:33 to go in the opening half and the Cowboys leading 37-17, Thompson was the victim of some friendly fire, bouncing off a teammate and hitting the wood. The 6-foot-10, 230-pound senior quickly got back on his feet and contested what looked to be an easy lay in for Green.
At the other end of the floor, Wenzel drilled his third triple of the opening frame. That capped a 9-0 run that included some Reynolds highlights, a 5-second violation for the Bulldogs and a Foster scoop and score in the paint.
All of that above happened in the first 20 minutes.
Wyoming was in full control and en route to its most impressive victory -- by far -- of the season.
The scoring, balanced.
The atmosphere, fun.
This team, back on track? One can hope. Dayton and Saint Mary's loom.
"It's still one game, but it's sure nice, as a coach -- and probably even as a fan -- to sit there and say, you know what, that looked right. That felt right," Linder said. "... We just need to continue to focus on us. I mean, that's what the biggest key is. You can sit there and you can get lost and all the other stuff the other team does when in reality, if your own team's not right and if you're not focusing on what you're doing, then you're in trouble."
* Linder was not thrilled with the response from the crowd during Tuesday night's 91-76 win over Commerce. He went on a near three-minute rant about the fans not responding to "winning plays" and questioned the loyalty. Tonight, he was singing a much different tune. The announced attendance was 4,604, the largest crowd to watch this team in this building so far this season. There was a noticeable difference. Linder clapped his hands and pointed to the crowd after the final whistle. He definitely saw the difference. "I thought the response by the fans was tremendous," he said. "I mean, that's what makes Wyoming a special place, when the Double-A (is loud), you can feel the energy in there. It's our job to make sure that we give them energy ... You could feel the energy back in there. That was the first time all year where I felt that energy, and that energy allowed us to beat a very good team."
* Reynolds and Wenzel were asked about their thoughts on the coaching calling out the fans. "The crowd was awesome," Reynolds said. "It's only going to get better as we continue to win. We understand, it's on us, too, trying to get those fans out there. Nobody wants to come in here and watch us lose consecutive games. We understand that and we know we have to be better. It's a conscious effort to get people in the stands to watch us play." "We really, really appreciate them," Wenzel added. "They may not think it helps, but when you're on the court and they're screaming like that and supporting us, (it's huge)."
* Linder and Co. give out a hard hat after each win. That is presented to the grittiest player on the floor. Tonight, one might think that was a difficult decision. Internally, it wasn't. "The Red Rocket," Wenzel said with a smile, referring to Foster, who netted 12 and pulled down five rebounds. "Anytime Kenny starts off the game with a dunk, you know it's going to be Kenny," Reynolds added.
* Max Agbonkpolo, for the second straight game, didn't play a single minute. Tonight, Jake Kyman joined him on the bench for the duration. The transfers from Southern Cal and UCLA, respectively, have not been a part of the rotation of late. "It's a long season and, you know, that's just part of it," Linder said. "But you have to be ready for the opportunity when the opportunity presents itself and there's no feeling sorry for yourself. There's no pouting."
* Reynolds and Wenzel were asked if they were needed to lift those two guys up during this difficult time. "Those are both two really good guys," Wenzel said. "So there's nothing that we really need to do because they're here for the team. It doesn't matter if they're playing. I think we have 15 or whatever guys that don't care if they're playing or not. We're all here for the team." Reynolds said he has an interesting aspect of what those two are going through. Last season, he played sparingly and never left the bench during the Cowboys' NCAA Tournament game against Indiana. "I definitely thought that there were times where I was sitting on the bench and I was like, 'man, I really think I could have helped our team win today,'" he said. "... My message that I try to push to them is, stay ready, because there's going to be a moment, I promise that there's going to be a moment this year where Max Agbonkpolo wins us a game."
* Four times this season, Maldonado's stat sheet has included just one turnover. Against LaTech, the senior guard didn't hand out any gifts for the first time since the 2021 season opener against Detroit Mercy.
* No. 24 was going to be a problem tonight. Cobe Williams was averaging 18.3 points per game entering this one. Wyoming's defense did a number on the junior guard, limiting Williams to just 3-of-12 shooting from the field. He netted 10 points in the loss.
* Wyoming's scorers: Reynolds 20, Wenzel 20, Maldonado 13, Foster 12, Oden 11, DuSell 8, Thompson 3, Anderson 3, Barnhardt 2
* Mountain West standings: UNLV: 10-0, New Mexico: 9-0, Utah State: 7-0, Boise State: 8-2, Nevada: 8-3, SJSU: 8-3, San Diego State: 7-3, Air Force: 7-4, CSU: 6-4; Wyoming: 5-5, Fresno State: 3-6
* Mountain West scoreboard (Saturday finals): Saint Mary's 68, San Diego State 61; UNLV 74, Washington State 70; Pacific 76, Fresno State 72; SJSU 75, Santa Clara 64; New Mexico 94, UTSA 76; Oregon 78, Nevada 65; Boise State 57, St. Louis 52; Wyoming 92, LaTech 65