Tuck’s Takes: Shorthanded Pokes make a statement — ‘It’s not over’
LARAMIE -- Today's episode of Wyoming basketball is brought to you by the letter "E."
That stands for effort, an aspect of this Cowboy team that has been questioned at times this season -- and rightfully so -- including last Saturday night's 20-point blowout at the hands of former Mountain West cellar-dweller San Jose State.
Yes, UW was on the wrong end of the scoreboard again, falling to UNLV, 69-59. But did the score really matter in this one, though?
There were plenty of reasons for the Pokes to pack it in.
Excuses, those are plentiful.
Tuesday, we all learned leading scorer Noah Reynolds will be sidelined for the remainder of the season after suffering his third concussion in six months. The sophomore joined preseason conference player of the year, Graham Ike, on the proverbial shelf. The big man announced Friday he would skip the final eight games and focus on rehabilitating a nagging right foot injury that has kept him out of the lineup all year.
Then there was the latest distraction.
Ethan Anderson, Max Agbonkpolo and Jake Kyman, all three Pac-12 offseason acquisitions via the NCAA Transfer Portal, left the program less than 24 hours before this tilt with the Runnin' Rebels.
Rolling just seven deep, Jeff Linder's team played with grit.
They played with passion.
They played defense.
Most importantly, the Cowpokes played with the all-out effort it takes to win games in this league. It was a welcomed change.
Wyoming muddied it up, hands in face, holding the visitors to just 25% shooting from the field and 25 points through the first 20 minutes of play. Aside from a 33-point night from EJ Harkless, who now has an eye-popping 61 points in 63 minutes in the regular-season sweep, the Pokes pestered Keshon Gilbert, Luis Rodriguez and Justin Webster, holding that trio to just 21 combined points.
UNLV hit just 33% of its shots in this one.
"The best defensive effort we've ever had," said Hunter Maldonado, who eclipsed the 2,000-point mark, becoming just the fifth Cowboy to do that, joining other UW legends like Fennis Dembo (2,311), Brandon Ewing (2,168), Justin James (2,061) and Flynn Robinson (2,049). "Like I said, I think it goes a long way because in that huddle, we have those guys that, they're Wyoming basketball players. We're playing for the name on the front (of the jersey). And that's what you saw tonight -- a tight-knit group that held a team to 33%."
Linder stood outside the home tunnel after the final horn sounded and the handshake line scattered. He acknowledged every one of the trainers, his coaching staff and players before they made their way to the home locker room.
Wyoming's third-year head coach downplayed the gesture, saying "that's what we do." But this time seemed to have extra meaning behind it.
"We all have choices and that's where those guys, I mean, they have a choice. Graham, he had a choice not to come back here last year," said Linder, who declined to talk about the recent departures that are dominating the headlines. "... They gave me everything they got and that's all I can ask. I mean, I can lose that way. But, you know, the beauty of it is we can turn back around tomorrow, we can watch film and we can practice and we're going to get better, because those guys are going to come with the focus that you know what we can get better. That's what we're about.
"We're not listening to the noise. Nobody is."
Xavier DuSell always seems to have a grin creasing his face. Yes, even in the bad times. It can be an unsettling sight, especially after a loss. The junior guard isn't happy about the result, he has perspective.
"I think you asked me a question maybe a few times ago about how it seems like the world's falling down and I always have a smile on my face," he said to me. "Just that's how it is in the locker room. Hopes stay high. We know there are brighter days ahead."
Where does that spirit come from?
Maldonado was quick to answer that one.
"Because of the work we put in," he said.
"At the end of the day, the sun is going to rise regardless," DuSell quipped.
This group certainly has the mindset to compete. We saw tonight they have the want and will, too. Will that translate into victories? Upcoming trips to Boise and Albuquerque would suggest there's no shot, but don't tell these guys.
"I think if you put as much work as we do into this game, at the end of day, why wouldn't you be confident? You're putting in the work," Maldonado said. "At some point, adversity is going to stop and you get on the other side of the circle. That's been my whole career here. I mean, that's what it is. So, just giving that message, I mean, if you quit now and you don't have that spark in you, then, obviously, it's probably a good time to stop playing the game."
There came that DuSell smile again.
"It's not over."
* Wyoming scorers: Hunter Maldonado 17, Brendan Wenzel 11, Xavier DuSell 10, Jeremiah Oden 10, Caden Powell 6, Hunter Thompson 5
* The Cowboys are now 21-43 all-time against the Rebels and fall to 16-13 in Laramie.
* UW used its 16th starting lineup in 23 games this season, going with Maldonado, Thompson, Wenzel, Oden and DuSell against UNLV. That is the most in the nation so far this year.
* Maldonado has now scored in double figures in 100 career games in a Cowboys' uniform.
* Powell's six points ties a career high he set in the season opener against Colorado Christian.
* Nate Barnhart pulled down a career-best nine rebounds in the loss.
* After turning the ball over a season-high 17 times in last Saturday's loss at San Jose State, UW gave it away just 12 times in this one, leading to 13 UNLV points.
* The Pokes and Rebels both finished with 36 rebounds in the game with the home team winning the defensive battle, 30-28.
* Wyoming outscored UNLV 30-8 in the paint.
* There were 10 lead changes tonight, including five ties. UW led for just 7:31.
* Again the Pokes allowed its opponent to reach double figures from beyond the arc. The Rebels drilled 10 triples, five of which came courtesy of Harkness.
* Wyoming (7-16, 2-9) will travel to Boise State (18-6, 8-3) Saturday night to take on the defending Mountain West champion Broncos inside ExtraMile Arena. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. and the game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.