A career night from Justin James wasn’t enough for Wyoming to start its first winning streak of the season.
James went for 34 points and a career-high 20 rebounds while Hunter Thompson returned to score a career-high 15 points, but Evansville used a more balanced scoring attack to pull away for an 86-78 win Wednesday at the Ford Center. John Hall had 21 points to lead five double-figure scorers for the Purple Aces, who ended the game on a 14-5 run.
The Cowboys (2-5) were without their second-leading scorer and rebounder in Hunter Maldonado, who continues to deal with back spasms. Wyoming also had three players foul out on a night nobody else finished in double figures, but James and Thompson still gave the Cowboys a chance.
James finished 11 of 24 from the floor and 11 of 14 from the free-throw line, surpassing his previous career-high of 33 points to move into 13th on Wyoming’s all-time scoring list. He scored 22 of his points in the second half, including a layup that gave the Cowboys their first lead at 61-60 with 8 minutes, 32 seconds remaining.
Thompson, playing his first game since sustaining a concussion in the season opener on Nov. 6, finished 6 of 10 from the floor and scored all but four of his points in the final 20 minutes before fouling out late. A jumper from James put Wyoming ahead 73-72 with 2:37 left, but Evansville (3-3) scored the next seven points to spark its final spurt.
“Our heads to need to stay up, feel the pain and understand that this season was going to be about growing pains,” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said on postgame radio. “This is one of them, especially with the injuries, guys being healthy, guys not being healthy and having to adjust game plans depending on who’s going to play and who’s not going to play.”
Wyoming shot 44 percent from the field (26 of 59) and 82 percent from the charity stripe (22 of 27) but made just four of its 19 3-pointers for a season-worst 21-percent clip from beyond the arc. Jake Hendricks, who came in averaging 13.7 points, went 0-for-6 from deep and finished with more fouls (5) than points (4) for the Cowboys, who’ve yet to win back-to-back games.
“It’s a spirited locker room,” Edwards said. “Some things to be positive about. Obviously JJ’s ability to do the things he’s doing with the minutes he’s playing, and it was good to get Thompson back on the floor and get him some good minutes as well.”
Thompson pulled down four boards in 20 minutes to help Wyoming finish plus-6 on the glass but played just four of those minutes in the first half after picking up two quick fouls. James had a double-double before the half was over with 12 points and 10 rebounds, and Wyoming needed every bit of it to stay close during its worst shooting half of the season.
Evansville went on a 12-2 run to take its largest lead of the half at 24-9 with 6:06 left. Wyoming scored the next five points capped by a layup from James, but the Purple Aces again stretched their lead to 15 before James answered with five straight points as a part of a 7-0 spurt to trim Evansville’s advantage to 33-24 at the break.
James had five of his points from the free-throw line in the first 20 minutes as the Cowboys shot just 26 percent from the floor. Wyoming missed nine of its first 10 attempts from 3.
“I thought we just had a tale of two halves,” Edwards said. “I thought we played better offensively in the second half, and then our defense lacked.”