U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY – The Pokes’ 13th starting lineup of the season was not the charm.
Wyoming, which was without five players, including Hunter Maldonado and Graham Ike, wilted in the second half and fell 82-74 to Air Force on Tuesday night at Clune Arena.
The Cowboys (5-13 overall, 0-6 Mountain West), losers of eight consecutive games, will still be looking for their first conference win entering Saturday’s Border War against rival Colorado State.
“I was exhausted,” Ethan Anderson said after the undermanned visitors gave up 50 points in the second half. “Air Force runs a very good offense and it’s designed to get you tired. They use the entire shot clock and when you’ve got six or seven guys it’s bound to happen.
“We’re missing Maldo and Graham, that’s Wyoming basketball right there in a nutshell.”
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Head coach Jeff Linder inserted 7-footer Nate Barnhart into the starting lineup for the first time. The freshman finished with 11 points on 5-for-5 shooting and five rebounds.
Barnhart’s counterpart, Beau Becker, who was averaging 5.1 points and had made seven 3s all season, finished with a career-high 23 points with five made 3s to lead the Falcons (12-7, 3-3).
Sagging on Becker and protecting the paint was the scouting report Barnhart was asked to stick to.
“He did tremendous, and he was a guy that played 30 minutes and did not look tired the entire time,” Linder said of Barnhart. “That’s a guy that hadn’t been on the floor for a lot of minutes. So, for him to come out on the floor and do what he did was tremendous. He was the key to what we were trying to do defensively and those threes that his man got that was the game plan.”
Noah Reynolds scored 26 points with Anderson (14 points) and Xavier DuSell (12 points) also scoring in double figures.
UW shot 54.9% from the field but allowed Air Force to recover from a slow start by shooting 65.4% in the second half.
“You can’t allow a team to shoot pretty much 70 percent for a large portion of that second half,” Linder said. “It really came down to just being tough enough to sit down and guard the ball and being tough enough to understand the scouting report.”
Becker, who was 1-for-4 behind the arc in the first half, hit three quick 3s coming out of the locker room to give Air Force a 41-38 lead with 18:10 remaining.
Barnhart responded on the other end with a bucket and Reynolds completed a three-point play to tie the score 43-43.
Air Force started to pull away with a 9-0 run. Becker hit back-to-back shots to give the Cadets a 10-point lead and a 3 by Ethan Taylor made the score 73-62.
“The first half we were really guarding, the second half they started knocking down some shots,” Barnhart said.
The Cowboys led by as many as 12 points but settled for a 36-32 cushion at the intermission despite shooting 56% from the field and holding the Falcons to 40.7%.
Reynolds had 16 points at the break but had his shot blocked on UW’s final possession, which led to a 3 by Camden Vander Zwaag with four ticks left.
The Cowboys had a 22-12 scoring edge in the paint and a 17-11 rebounding advantage in the first half.
Barnhart had four quick points and three rebounds to help UW get off to a 10-4 lead before the first media timeout.
The Falcons missed 11 consecutive 3s and the Pokes took advantage of the cold shooting by extending the lead to 22-10 on a deep 3 by DuSell with 8:41 remaining in the first half.
After a steal and layup by Vander Zwaag cut Air Force’s deficit to six points, Jake Kyman hit a timely 3 to make the score 31-22.
Kyman missed a 3 in transition and then lost Vander Zwaag, who swished an uncontested shot behind the arc to get the Falcons within 33-29 with 51 seconds remaining.
Reynolds was fouled on a 3 and made all three free throws to give UW a seven-point lead before the sloppy final sequence.
“Their guys didn’t look tired,” Linder said of the Falcons, who also had an eight-man rotation. “That’s college basketball, man. … Good teams don’t get tired.”
Maldonado, who hit the game-winning layup high off the glass and finished with 31 points in UW’s 63-61 win here last season, made the trip but did not suit up due to a rib injury.
The super senior from Colorado Springs left Saturday’s loss to Boise State early and was having trouble breathing afterwards.
UW was also without Ike (foot), Brendan Wenzel (knee), Hunter Thompson (mononucleosis) and Kenny Foster (back).
“There’s no doubt in my mind if Graham Ike laces his shoes up we’re top two in the conference again,” Anderson said. “But I love this team we’re playing with now, this group of guys, and I will continue to give everything I have.”