LARAMIE — In a conference with as much parity as the Mountain West this season, every game is an important one. But even Wyoming head coach Allen Edwards acknowledged that the Cowboys’ Feb. 20 game against New Mexico was especially important, due to the implications it had on conference standings. So, when Wyoming dropped that game — at home and by allowing 119 points, no less — it looked like the Pokes had an uphill climb to reach their stated goal of a top-five finish.
Two games later, that hill is looking much less steep. The Cowboys got the taste of the New Mexico game out of their mouths with a road win at third-place Fresno State, which had won five straight. And Wednesday, the Cowboys moved back into a tie for fifth place, the final spot to be awarded a first-round bye for the conference tournament, with a 66-54 win over Air Force.
“Well, I’ve always commended them on whether we win or lose, they come back to practice every day with a nice mentality to get out there and work,” Edwards said of his team. “They haven’t lost that. And no different after the Fresno State game. Huge win on the road at their place against a very good basketball team. And then, even being put in this unique of a situation to where you’re playing your last home conference game and this is the first time you’re playing the opponent, a lot of things could have crept in and probably railroaded what we were trying to do.
The Cowboys are once again tied with San Diego State for fifth place in the Mountain West. If Wyoming wins Saturday at Boise State or San Diego State loses its regular-season finale to first-place Nevada, the Cowboys will secure a top-five finish.
“I think we’re sitting in a good position right now, if we go and get this next one at Boise to hopefully get a bye in the Mountain West,” senior Hayden Dalton said. “So, good momentum going into the tournament.”
Wyoming senior Lou Adams had a career-high 31 points in that New Mexico loss, despite the fact that he had missed the previous two games with an ankle injury. He hasn’t quite matched that total in the two games since, but he did play a key role in Wednesday’s win.
Adams scored 12 points off the bench, tying Dalton for the second most on the team behind Justin James (18). Eight of those points came during a pivotal second-half stretch that gave Wyoming a lead it never lost. Over his last three games, he is averaging 16.7 points — after averaging 4.5 in the four games he played before that.
"It’s good to have guys who can always score," senior Hayden Dalton said. "Because everybody is going to have an off night. I couldn’t buy a layup tonight.”
Adams also had eight rebounds in the game.
“I just felt like I wasn’t giving my teammates everything that I could for our Senior Night and just being out there with my brothers,” he said. “So I just felt like I needed to give them more energy. My game wasn’t really going the way I wanted it to in the first half, so I had to find something else to do. So I really tried to key in on rebounds tonight.”
No Princeton problems
The last time Wyoming played Air Force, in a first-round loss in last year’s conference tournament, the Cowboys allowed 83 points. Wednesday, Wyoming allowed its fewest points in a game all season.
“At the end of the day, when you’re playing against (a) Princeton (offense), the main focal point is taking away layups, because it goes against your principles,” Edwards said. “And if you don’t, it fuels what they do. Because they get excited. Backdoor layups are like dunks. Once you get enough of them, it ignites you. And you’ve got to worry about the 3 ball. I thought we only got beat one time tonight on a back cut, but outside of that, I thought we did a really good job.
“We mixed up zone (defenses), but even within our zone, there were times where we had to go man out of it, and I still think we did a great job of guarding their action. And a telltale sign was the 3-point line. Them going 5-for-20 I thought was huge as well.”
Said senior Alan Herndon, who had three blocks: “I think a lot of the guys have been here enough to where they’re kind of used to that offense. They’ve seen it enough to where we know that we have to really keep a body between the man and the rim, because they’ll get back cuts.
"... Certain things we knew we were going to be late on, but the big things was communication through the mistakes. We knew it wasn’t going to be perfect. We just had to play through it.”
Wyoming honored its four seniors before their final regular-season game at the Arena-Auditorium. Dalton, Herndon, Adams and Alexander Aka Gorski were each presented with a framed jersey as their families joined them on the court for the pre-game ceremony.
“In their own way, they’ve done a great job of impacting the program,” Edwards said. “I thought it was great to see their families come out as well, especially when you talk about the distance of Alex’s family, to come (from Sweden) to support him — and even Lou, coming from Chicago. But I thought that was great, and happy that we’re able to get a win for them on this day."
With the win, the Cowboys completed their season with a 12-4 record at the Arena-Auditorium, 6-3 in conference play.