LARAMIE — Justin James snapped out of his funk.
With even more defensive attention thrown his way than usual given the seven-man rotation that injuries and other defections have left Wyoming with, James was shooting less than 25 percent from the field over his last six games. But the Mountain West’s leading scorer knocked down nearly half of his attempts Saturday, shooting better than 36 percent for the first time in more than a month on the way to his 11th 20-point game of the season.
The problem once again was James didn’t have much help.
Even when Wyoming cut down significantly on its turnovers and played good enough alternating defense to slow down a Utah State team that came in averaging the third-most points in the MW, the Cowboys couldn’t avoid their longest losing streak of the season. The Cowboys’ 71-55 loss at the Arena-Auditorium was their fourth straight, their seventh in the last eight games and their ninth in the last 11.
Wyoming, which has lost all four of its conference games by double figures, has yet to score more than 56 points in league play. The Cowboys (4-13, 0-4 MW) will have a week off before giving it another shot at New Mexico next Saturday.
“I told our guys we have to be ready for battles. We’re not winning by 20 points,” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said. “We have to be ready to fight and win by single digits. Sometimes that’s five points, three points, one point. We’ve got to be ready for those type of fights.”
James went 10 of 21 from the floor to finish with a game-high 27 points — his most since scoring 34 at Evansville on Nov. 28. He grabbed 10 rebounds for his 13th career double-double, but freshman TJ Taylor, who went 4 of 6 from 3-point range for 12 of his 14 points, was the only other player to finish in double figures for the Cowboys, who shot 40 percent from the field.
“In some situations, some guys have to demand the ball, and it’s my job to find the mismatches and find how to put certain guys in certain spots so they can be successful,” James said. “But it’s a team thing. It’s all about how we can get better as a team and the right shots we can look for when we’re on the floor.”
Wyoming turned it over just nine times after averaging 16.3 in its first three league games, but it wasn’t nearly enough to keep up with a Utah State team that came in scoring 79 points per game. Sam Merrill, the MW’s second-league scorer, led Utah State (12-5, 2-2) with 22 points and eight rebounds while Dwayne Brown Jr. and Diogo Brito added 13 and 10 points, respectively.
Wyoming, which has largely leaned on its 2-3 zone defense with its limited numbers, went back and forth between man and zone, keeping Merrill and the rest of the Aggies at bay early. But Merrill eventually got going and scored 15 of his points in the second half.
Still, Wyoming trailed by just one possession after Taylor hit a corner 3 with 14:31 left. But the Aggies took control with an 11-1 run over the next 3:25 and stretched their lead to as many as 18. The Aggies knocked down 6 of their final 13 3s and dominated on the interior, outscoring Wyoming 36-16 in the paint and finishing plus-11 (40-29) on the boards.
Utah State’s freshman big, Neemias Queta, chipped in 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting while Wyoming’s Hunter Thompson was largely ineffective against the 6-foot-11 Queta and the rest of Utah State’s frontline. The Cowboys’ second-leading scorer had a season-low five points on five shots in 35 minutes.
“I think the big thing is making the other team respect our other players because JJ carries a lot of our load,” Taylor said. “At the same time, we have to make his job easier by knocking down shots and being aggressive.”
Taylor did that early to help Wyoming start much faster than its last time out in a 30-point loss at San Diego State. Taylor, making his first start since Dec. 21, scored Wyoming’s first eight points as the Cowboys jumped out to a 12-4 lead, but Utah State eventually found its stroke.
Brito’s 3 with 2:05 left in the first half gave Utah State its first lead at 24-21, and the Aggies knocked down six of their final seven shots of the half. That included a 3 from Merrill at the buzzer that sent Utah State to the break with a 32-25 advantage after holding Wyoming to just two field goals over the half’s final 6:58.
“I thought we came out in the second half OK, but as the game went on and on, I thought we lost some of the young guys’ focus in a sense of playing those type of minutes,” Edwards said.