LARAMIE — Wyoming was hoping for a better start to Mountain West play after a non-conference schedule full of losses and injuries.
But things only got worse for the Cowboys on Wednesday.
Justin James had his worst shooting performance of the season on a night when Wyoming was still without two of its top three scorers. It was far too much for a team largely dependent on the production of the league’s leading scorer to overcome in a 69-55 loss to Boise State in both teams’ MW opener at the Arena-Auditorium.
The Cowboys (4-10, 0-1 MW) trailed by as many as 22 against a Boise State team that had just one more win than them coming in and lost to Drake, Grand Canyon and Idaho State in its non-league slate. With Hunter Maldonado (nerve injury) and Jake Hendricks (knee) still watching from the bench, Wyoming shot just 35 percent from the field and 38 percent from 3-point range, failing to eclipse 65 points for the fourth straight game.
The Cowboys, who have lost four of their last five, will have to try to snap out of their funk away from the Arena-Auditorium with a two-game road swing starting at UNLV on Saturday.
“Surprisingly, the confidence is still high,” James said. “We come out in practice with energy and effort. We’re continuing to try to get better because if we go into practice with this why-are-we-doing-this mentality, this season’s going to be a lot longer than we hope.”
James, who was held to his lowest point total of the season, pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds but went just 1 of 14 from the field and 1 of 5 from deep against a Boise State team that made it a point to extend its defense on Wyoming’s all-everything guard. James finished with nearly as many turnovers (6) as points (7). The Cowboys also got just three points from freshman big Hunter Thompson, who came in averaging 12.5 points but was scoreless until making his only basket with 5 minutes, 57 seconds left.
“They’ve been playing ball screens high pretty much all season,” said James, who came in leading the MW in minutes and played all 40 Wednesday. “It was just one of those nights. I have to find a way to get to my spots and know when to shoot them and when not to shoot them because there were a few I felt I forced and that were rushed. And those weren’t the best shots for the team.
“When I’m out there, I feel like I have energy. There are a few times where I get tired, but I have to fight through it. There will be a media timeout or coach (Allen Edwards) calls a timeout because he knows we’re low on numbers and we need that breather, but I’m fine. I really do feel fine.”
Freshman Trace Young, who had his redshirt pulled two games ago with injuries piling up, led Wyoming with 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting in his first career start while Jordan Naughton had 10 points. Holding on to the ball was a problem throughout the Cowboys’ seven-man rotation as Wyoming committed 15 turnovers, which led to 17 Boise State points.
“Turnovers killed us,” Young said. “We had 15 turnovers tonight. The game was close, and probably six of them came in a row. That allowed them to extend the lead. We’ve just got to take care of the ball.”
Alex Hobbs led three Boise State players in double figures with 17 points. Justinian Jessup and Derrick Alston added 14 and 10 points, respectively, for the Broncos (6-8, 1-0 MW), who worked the middle of Wyoming’s switching zone defenses enough to still shoot 42.4 percent from the field despite going just 8 of 26 (31 percent) from 3-point range.
Hobbs also grabbed seven boards to help Boise State outrebound the Cowboys 33-30. Eleven of those were on the offensive end as the Broncos got 12 second-chance points and outscored Wyoming 24-14 in the paint.
The teams started a combined 4 of 14 from the field with James missing on nine of his first 10 shots. Wyoming remained cold for the duration of the half, shooting just 29 percent from the field.
“1-for-14 doesn’t speak to his ability on the offensive end of the floor,” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said of James. “I just thought it was him trying to take over, and I told him he has to understand when and when not to. We’ve had a few games now with that shooting percentage and turning the ball over, but he’s doing a great job in a sense of trying to lead these guys.
Boise eventually got going against the MW’s third-worst scoring defense. Alston was the point man for the Broncos in the middle of Wyoming’s zone and finished the first half with eight points as the Broncos shot 41 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes.
Jessup, who was 4 of 7 from long range, knocked down a 3 with 3:14 left in the half to give Boise State its first double-digit lead at 29-19. Wyoming went the final 7:12 without a basket and trailed 33-22 at the half — a deficit the Cowboys cut to single digits just twice the rest of the way.