LARAMIE — In a way, Hayden Dalton’s season was emblematic of Wyoming basketball’s season.
Like his team, Dalton turned heads in non-conference play. When the Cowboys were playing their best, so was Dalton, racking up double-doubles as he gave defenses fits with his combination of length, deep shooting and ability to play in transition.
As the season dragged on, Dalton slumped, much like his team did in Mountain West play, and he was hindered first by an ankle injury and then by turnovers.
Friday, both Dalton and Wyoming finished with a strong outing, again raising expectations for the Cowboys’ future. Dalton had game highs with 19 points and 11 rebounds in Wyoming’s 83-59 CBI championship win over Coastal Carolina.
Dalton had averaged 6.8 points per game the previous four games of the tournament. He hadn’t scored 19 points in regulation since a Jan. 11 win over Utah State. In his 12th double-double of the season Friday, he hit 5 of 9 3-point attempts (55.6 percent) and 6 of 13 shots overall (46.1).
“I don’t think anything changed,” Dalton said. “I was getting the same looks last game. They just weren’t falling. I think all my teammates were saying, ‘Just keep shooting it. You’re open. Shoot it.’ And so I was just letting it go.
“Yeah, it was falling tonight, and it always feels good when it’s going in.”
Dalton missed his first two shots from the field but then caught fire, hitting four of his next five, including three 3-pointers.
“I just kind of told myself in my head, ‘Screw it. Just shoot the next one,’” Dalton said.
Even though his scoring hadn’t been there for much of the tournament — he did have 18 points against Eastern Washington in the first round — Dalton was still contributing, averaging 7.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists to go with just 1.7 turnovers per game in the tournament.
Dalton finishes the year as Wyoming’s second-leading scorer (12.2 points per game) and leading rebounder (8.3, fifth in the Mountain West).
“I thought he was huge, and to be honest with you, I felt like it was coming,” head coach Allen Edwards said. “I felt like tonight was it, because he hadn’t shot it well. At some point, you’re like, ‘He’s got to. The forces of nature has to take its course.’
“But the one thing I love about H. is he’s a player. He loves playing. He’s a competitor. And when he’s out there, he plays hard. Regardless of if his shot was going in or not. It was going in tonight, but I just felt like he did a lot of other things that really helped. He got on the glass and rebounded, and our guys get knocked because of being thin, but I thought there was a lot of fight in those guys tonight to really get in there and rebound the basketball.
“But his play tonight I think was the difference in the sense of separation with the score. Was happy to get him back in a sense of making shots, but at the end of the day, I thought, for the most part, everybody did something to help out today.”
Justin James added to his list of personal achievements Friday, being named the CBI’s Most Valuable Player. He had already been named the Mountain West sixth man of the year by both media and head coaches and was voted third-team all-conference by coaches and honorable mention all-conference by media.
“I mean, it’s good,” James said. “I’m more happy with the win. All credit to the team ... and to the coaching staff. They’re always giving me the confidence to go score, go make plays and finish the season out with a win. This just feels amazing.”
James, Wyoming’s leading scorer, put up 106 points in six CBI games (17.7 avg.), including 17 in the clincher. He also averaged 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists in the tournament.
“Sometimes his ability and his gifts, some of it you just can’t coach, and I tell him that,” Edwards said. “I get that. And sometimes I’m saying, OK, well you’re just trying to do too much.’ But I think he’s found that balance. ... He didn’t shoot the ball well tonight, but just playing off the dribble, rebounding the basketball and making an extra pass I thought was huge.
“But I think he’s a kid that, when you look at the overall talent in this league, there’s no way you can’t say he’s not one of the most talented kids in this league.”
James did not start a game until the CBI. Will that change next year?
“That’s what I loved about this team,” Edwards said. “They removed their pride. But obviously, J.J., if you wanted to chalk it up, I mean he’s our best player. But that didn’t mean, ‘Coach, I needed to start to prove that.’ He really removed his ego as a player, but naturally, as a player, you can just see his talents.
“Going forward, I would hope so. I think, again, he makes a difference. But regardless, he’ll play major minutes.”