LARAMIE -- It’s been one hit after another for Wyoming this season.
The injuries have been well-documented. Four players in the Cowboys’ regular rotation have missed multiple games this season because of them with sophomore forward Austin Mueller (torn ACL) being the latest to catch the injury bug last week. Wyoming is also waiting for senior big Jordan Naughton (knee) to return next month in time for Mountain West play.
The rotation got a little thinner for a different reason just hours before the Cowboys’ game against Denver on Tuesday to wrap up their three-game homestand
Head coach Allen Edwards announced an indefinite suspension for senior point guard Ny Redding after his alleged involvement in an altercation in Laramie. Redding, who had started each of the Cowboys’ first nine games, was cited for disorderly conduct and inciting a fight over the weekend and is awaiting a mandatory court date.
Then, with Wyoming (3-7) trying to mount a comeback against the Pioneers amid one of its worst defensive performances of the season, Hunter Maldonado went down again.
Maldonado, who’s missed two games this season with lingering back spasms but had made enough progress to return to the starting lineup for the first time since Nov. 16, fell to the Arena-Auditorium court after being undercut while going up for an offensive rebound. The sophomore’s back took the brunt of the landing, and he stayed down for an extended period of time writhing in pain.
“We kind of knew what he was going through, so it was just kind of one of those moments of, ‘Not this again,’” freshman forward Hunter Thompson said.
Maldonado was eventually helped into a wheelchair and carted off to a standing ovation from the 3,422 in attendance with 10 minutes, 37 seconds left. And with Wyoming having trimmed a 14-point deficit to 62-55 at the time, momentum was with the Cowboys seemingly for the first time all night.
Wyoming shot 53 percent from the field and 48 percent from 3-point range, eventually catching up to force overtime after Denver missed a couple of looks in the final 24 seconds of regulation. But the deficiencies that plagued the Cowboys throughout proved too much to overcome.
Donoven Carlisle’s tip-in with 21.4 seconds left put Denver ahead for good in a 90-87 win. Thompson missed a corner 3 on Wyoming’s ensuing possession, and the Pioneers (4-7) iced a victory with four straight free throws that still has the Cowboys searching for their first winning streak of the season 10 games in.
“All these things on top of one another, it’s tough,” Edwards said. “I’m not one to sit up here and blame it on anything or try to make excuses for it, but they’re facts. It hurts with what you’re trying to do. I would say the most challenging (season), whether as a head coach or an assistant, because I’ve never been around this much injuries or even the suspension, which at the end of the day you’re talking about key components to what we’re trying to do. So you have consistently adjust things to go forward.”
Jake Hendricks hit a career-high seven 3s and went 10 of 15 from the floor for a career-high 27 points while Justin James, who split point-guard duties with newcomer A.J. Banks, finished with 26, including eight in extra time. But Denver made it look just as easy against a Wyoming defense that’s gone with more zone recently to offset its lack of size but went largely with man Tuesday given the collective shooting ability of Denver, which came in shooting 45 percent from the field and nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc on the season.
Wyoming made no excuses for the Pioneers carving up whatever the Cowboys threw at them. Denver finished at its season average from 3 and shot 50 percent from the field. Joe Rosga paced four double-figure scorers for Denver with 22 points while Ade Murkey added 17.
“It’s just a lack of focus,” James said. “For them to score 90 points on us, that isn’t how we pride ourselves on defense. That isn’t the way we should come out and perform. We’re not worried about the makes and misses. We’re worried about the stops. We scored 87 points. Most of the time, that’s going to win.”
Tory Stewart Miller added 10 points and eight rebounds for the Pioneers, who dominated on the glass with a plus-21 rebounding margin. Carlisle’s go-ahead putback was one of 13 offensive boards for Denver, which scored 14 second-chance points.
Nobody other than James (8) had more than four rebounds for Wyoming, which lost to Denver for the second straight season.
“It was more of a want by them at the end of the day,” Edwards said. “We didn’t do our job."
The Cowboys appeared locked in coming off their nine-point win over South Carolina their last time out, making eight of their first nine shots to take a 10-point lead less than 6 minutes in. Hendricks started 4-for-4 from the field on his way to 13 first-half points as Wyoming shot 59.3 percent from the floor and 55 percent from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes.
But the Cowboys didn’t come close to matching their defensive effort against Carolina when Wyoming held the Gamecocks to 33 percent shooting from the field and a 15-percent clip from beyond the arc. Denver shot it at a 54.3-percent clip and made six of its first 11 attempts from deep, going on an 18-4 run at one point to turn the deficit into a two-possession lead with 8:52 left in the half.
The Pioneers stretched it to 48-39 lead at the break before hanging on to deal Wyoming perhaps its toughest gut punch to this point.
“It’ll test your faith, man,” Ewards said. “And some of it you can’t control at the end of the day, but I believe in what we’re doing and how we’re going about it. I believe I come to practice every day with positive energy, and our guys do the same.”