ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Outside the visiting locker room at Dreamstyle Arena, better known as The Pit, a sign with bright red letters warns visitors of “A.A.S.” “ACUTE ALTITUDE SICKNESS.”
“Symptoms include but are not limited to: shortness of breath, confusion, dizziness, headache, trouble sleeping and nausea,” the sign cautions.
This courteous reminder is not likely to strike fear into any member of the Wyoming basketball team, whose home court brags of its 7,220-feet elevation. Albuquerque is roughly a mile above sea level, and the court itself at The Pit sits underground, hence its nickname.
All that’s to say, when the Cowboys fell 75-66 Wednesday night to the Lobos, they were, at the very least, playing down to the level of competition in a literal sense. The rest of this season will determine whether they were doing so in a metaphorical sense, too.
“You can’t look at opponents and think that you’re going to just show up and win,” Wyoming head coach Allen Edwards said. “Regardless of who plays and who doesn’t play or what their record is, who they lost to and how much they lost by. All these things, I’m always telling our guys, we have to fight human nature when it comes to that, because sometimes it’s hard to fight it.
“Because you see it and you’re thinking, ‘Well, if this team did that, then we are capable of doing that.’ But every game, it starts all over again, so you have to go out there and be ready to compete for 40 minutes.”
Even on their historically challenging home court, the Lobos were the least vaunted Mountain West opponent Wyoming had faced this season. The Cowboys were coming off a 2-1 stretch against San Diego State, Nevada and Boise State, the three teams predicted to finish atop the conference this season. New Mexico entered Wednesday’s game with a 2-2 conference record, an 8-9 overall mark and a first-year head coach.
The Cowboys and Lobos played to those resumes in the first half, more or less.
Both teams held leads of as many as five in the first 20 minutes, but the Lobos took their lead early, while the Cowboys took theirs into halftime. New Mexico began the game up 7-2, before Wyoming responded with a 7-0 run to force a timeout. Three made 3-pointers by the Lobos, who entered the game with the fourth-most attempted 3s in the country, reestablished a five-point lead. But Wyoming turned the tables with a 12-2 run.
The rims became less friendly, though, and the teams made just six combined field goals in the half’s final 7:45. The last of those was a tip-in by Hayden Dalton at the buzzer after Alan Herndon missed a layup off a long feed. The Lobos gifted Wyoming that opportunity by traveling off a defensive rebound following James’ missed 3-pointer with 5 seconds left in the half.
James led all scorers in the first half with 16 points, seven of which accounted for Wyoming’s first seven points of the game. Two of his six first-half field goals were 3-pointers, giving him his first game with multiple made 3-pointers since Dec. 2 against Drake. James would end the night atop the score sheet as well, posting a career-high 31 points, one above the mark he set at Nevada.
“It was more about being assertive and going at the rim,” Edwards said of Wyoming’s offensive approach. “And I thought J.J. did a great job of that. And even from a standpoint of finishing, but also I thought that he tried to drop it off a few times but we didn’t finish when it got dropped off. Whether it was a missed layup or even like I told them in the first half, I thought we tried to make some acrobatic shots.”
James made the start after being questionable for the game with a groin injury. He took a knee in Wyoming’s Boise State win and could not play the majority of overtime. The Cowboys were without Jordan Naughton (back) for the third straight game. The Lobos, though, dressed just nine players for the game. Sam Logwood, their leading scorer with 12.9 points per game, missed his second straight game with a shoulder injury. Troy Simons, New Mexico’s fifth-leading scorer, did not dress. The Mountain West suspended Simons for New Mexico’s previous game against San Jose State for accumulated sportsmanship violations, but that was a one-game penalty.
But New Mexico more than made do with what it had. The Lobos began the second half with an 11-0 run to take the lead. Wyoming, you might recall, began the second half of its Boise State game with an 11-0 run to cut into a 16-point deficit and ultimately win in overtime. Wednesday, Antino Jackson scored the first eight points in New Mexico’s run, including two 3-pointers, before Herndon ended the run with a dunk 3:40 into the half. Jackson finished the game with a team-high 20 points. Edwards believed Jackson was carrying the ball and the fact that no calls were made led to his first technical of the season.
New Mexico expanded its lead to as many as 12. Wyoming twice pulled back within three but never closer, and both those occasions came in the first half of the period.
“We’ve got to stop doing this to ourselves,” Herndon said. “We’ve got to come out on edge and put ourselves in position. We can’t do that with the lack of energy, including myself, especially myself. We’ve got to come out and just play harder. That’s just what it comes down to.”
James had 15 of Wyoming’s 34 second-half points. He has scored 20-plus points in seven of his last 10 games. Dalton fouled out with 10 points and eight rebounds. No other Cowboys scored in double figures. Joe Furstinger and Makuach Maluach each scored 17 points for New Mexico, with Furstinger adding 10 rebounds.
The Lobos hit half of the 10 second-half 3s they attempted. Wyoming shot just 12 3-pointers in the entire game, including four in the second half, none of which it made. The Cowboys have lost both games this year in which they’ve shot fewer than 18 shots behind the arc (Northern Colorado, nine).
“We came in the game just thinking attack, because we knew they were going to press,” Herndon said. “After we defeated their pressure, we were just thinking, ‘Attack, attack, get to the rim, try to draw fouls and things like that.’ So I don’t know if it was they necessarily took it away, but we were looking more to attack the rim.”
Wyoming has now lost its last four games away from Laramie. The Cowboys last won at The Pit in 2016, when then-senior Josh Adams scored 38 points. The last time before that was 2003.
When Wednesday’s loss ended at 9:05 p.m., the Cowboys returned to the visiting locker. The coaches didn’t leave their meeting until 9:20 p.m. Then they spoke with the players for another 20 minutes.
“This game, we just weren’t focused,” James said. “I mean, the first half we were there. I don’t know what we have to do to have us play 40 minutes of basketball.”
Maybe the warning about headaches and confusion wasn’t far off.
New Mexico 75, Wyoming 66
Wednesday, at Albuquerque, N.M.
WYOMING (66): Alan Herndon 3-9 0-0 6, Hayden Dalton 4-10 0-0 10, Justin James 11-18 7-8 31, Cody Kelley 0-2 0-0 0, Hunter Maldonado 2-3 0-0 4, Nyaires Redding 1-3 0-0 2, Andrew Moemeka 1-1 1-1 3, Alexander Aka Gorski 1-2 0-0 2, Lou Adams 3-5 2-3 8. Totals 26-53 10-12 66.
NEW MEXICO (75): Joe Furstinger 6-11 4-7 17, Jachal Simmons 0-2 0-0 0, Dane Kuiper 0-1 0-0 0, Antino Jackson 7-12 2-3 20, Makuach Maluach 5-9 6-6 17, Chris McNeal 1-4 2-2 5, Vladimir Pinchuk 0-1 0-1 0, Anthony Mathis 4-10 5-6 16. Totals 23-50 19-25 75.
3-point goals: UW 4-12 (Dalton 2-3, James 2-6, Kelley 0-1, Redding 0-1, Aka Gorski 0-1) NM 10-24 (Jackson 4-7, Mathis 3-7, Furstinger 1-2, Maluach 1-3, McNeal 1-3, Simmons 0-1, Kuiper 0-1). Rebounds: UW 23 (Herndon 8, Dalton 8) NM 34 (Furstinger 10). Assists: UW 9 (Dalton 3, James 3) NM 13 (Furstinger 4, Jackson 4). Steals: UW 7 (Dalton 4, Aka Gorski 2) NM 7 (Jackson 4). Attendance: 9,846.