LARAMIE — Justin James walked over to the scorer’s table, grabbed the microphone and let it all out.
Wyoming’s do-everything senior guard addressed the 4,113 fans that showed up Saturday to watch one of the program’s greats play his final game inside the Arena-Auditorium, thanking them for their support. He then voiced appreciation for his parents, who made the trip from Florida to Laramie for the Senior Day festivities, his teammates, and his coach, Allen Edwards, whom James has forged a strong bond with ever since the former played a pivotal role in signing James as an under-the-radar prospect five years ago as an assistant on Larry Shyatt’s staff.
“I just want to say thank you guys for all the love,” James said as he winded down his minute-long speech. “It’s been great, and I’ll always be a Cowboy. Go Pokes.”
James then walked toward his teammates, chest-bumped a couple of them and walked off his home floor as a winner.
Like he has so often this season, James starred in Wyoming’s 88-81 win over New Mexico in both teams’ regular-season finale. He took 24 shots and made 11 of them en route to a game-high 28 points, giving him 2,030 for his illustrious career.
“I was just anxious to get the game started. I felt like it was just too much pregame stuff,” James said. “Once the ball went up in the air, I was fine. And after we got the win, obviously I was super excited not just for the team but just for this great program we have.”
Didn’t have the greatest seat for this (frontal view on the jumbotron in the background is better), but Justin James addresses the crowd here at the Arena-Auditorium after Wyoming’s win as his coaches and teammates look on. pic.twitter.com/cbNHNu805f— Davis Potter (@DavisEPotter) March 10, 2019
The win not only avenged the Cowboys’ 30-point loss in the teams’ first meeting back on Jan. 19 in Albuquerque but also gave them their first winning streak of the season. Wyoming, which locked up the No. 10 seed for the Mountain West tournament earlier this week with its win over San Jose State, will go for its third straight win in a rubber match with UNM in the opening round Wednesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
James also snatched 12 rebounds for his 10th double-double of the season for the Cowboys, who got one of their more balanced offensive efforts of the season to shoot 52 percent from the field. A.J. Banks added a career-high 20 points while Hunter Thompson (14), Jake Hendricks (11) and fellow senior Jordan Naughton (10) also finished in double figures, helping offset the advantage UNM had on the interior with 6-foot-10 forward Carlton Bragg, who finished with 22 points and 20 rebounds — both career-highs.
“I thought this time around we had a little bit more patience, and we had a little bit more of a contribution from other guys,” Edwards said. “Banks himself scoring 20 points and having five assists and three turnovers but more importantly stepping up the free-throw line and putting them in during a critical time.”
Makuach Maluach added 18 points as the Lobos scored 34 of their points in the paint and outrebounded Wyoming by 12 (42-30). But the Cowboys shot 60 percent from the field in the second half and led by as many as 12 with 3:24 left.
New Mexico put full-court pressure on the Cowboys, whose season-long issues taking care of the ball resurfaced to make things interesting down the stretch. Wyoming, which turns it over at the second-highest rate in the MW, committed turnovers on each of its next four possessions as the Lobos threatened to trim the deficit to four with less than 2 minutes left. Maluach tried to keep UNM’s momentum going with authority when he drove in for a dunk, but Banks — a good five inches shorter than Maluach at 6-foot-2 — met UNM’s sophomore wing at the rim for the block.
TJ Taylor was fouled on Wyoming’s next possession and sank both free throws to push the Cowboys’ lead to 79-71 with 1:38 left, and Wyoming never led by less than seven the rest of the way. The Cowboys made 11 of their final 12 free throws and shot 83 percent (24 of 29) from the charity stripe for the game.
“It was kind of just off instinct,” Banks said of his block. “I’m real eager to jump up and challenge guys, and I did it. I was a little scared. I didn’t know he missed it until a little bit after, but I think if he would’ve made that, that probably would’ve been a big change for them and gave them momentum closing out the game.”
Said James, “I told him that was the play of the game.”
James was hot from the start, scoring Wyoming’s first five points and knocking down half of his first 14 shots. He had 17 points in the first 11:52 and finished the first half with 20 points, helping the Cowboys lead by as many as 10 in the opening 20 minutes.
The inside-out combination of Bragg, who had an 11-point, 10-board double-double before the break, and Maluach kept UNM close before James drove to draw the Lobos’ defense in the waning seconds and dished to Banks, who knocked down a corner 3 to send Wyoming to a 42-41 halftime lead — one the Cowboys maintained to end their trying regular season on a high note.