LARAMIE -- Wyoming got contributions from those head coach Allen Edwards expects to be consistent secondary scoring options to Justin James this season.
Sophomore guard Hunter Maldonado and Jake Hendricks, a sharpshooting transfer from the junior college ranks, combined to go 12 of 25 from the floor. Of course, James had his usual double-figure outing.
Yet it was a freshman who filled it up Wednesday night to help the Cowboys notch their first win of the season.
TJ Taylor poured in 21 points in his most significant minutes so far, igniting Wyoming’s best shooting performance of the young season in an 86-78 win over Grambling State at the Arena-Auditorium. James led all scorers with 23 points while Maldonado posted career-highs in points (21) and rebounds (12) for his first career double-double as the Cowboys (1-2) finished with a trio of 20-point scorers for the first time since a 119-114 loss to New Mexico back in February.
"Even over the fall, the one thing we've said about (Taylor) as a coaching staff is that he just plays with poise," Edwards said. "Every time he's actually out on the floor with the older group, he can fit in and not be erratic."
James, who finished in double figures for the third straight game, had a timely old-fashioned three-point play and sank a pair of free throws with 1 minute left -- part of a 13-for-13 night from the charity stripe for the senior -- to extend Wyoming’s lead again after Grambling (1-1) twice cut a 16-point deficit to six. But it was Taylor who had the hot hand from the start.
The 6-foot-6 freshman hit his first five shots from the floor and finished 6 of 9 from the field and 3 of 4 from 3-point range to drop the most points for a Wyoming freshman since Desmar Jackson scored 31 against Utah in 2010. After playing just 3 minutes in the Cowboys’ first two games, Taylor added seven rebounds and three steals in 31 minutes.
"I wouldn't say it's a surprise because I try to always be ready, but I didn't expect to play this much," Taylor said. "I just wanted to do what coach needed me to do. I guess he liked what I was doing and kept me out there."
Hendricks had three of Wyoming’s season-high nine 3s on his way to 13 points. The Cowboys shot 47 percent from the field -- an eight-point bump from their season average.
Playing their second game without bigs Jordan Naughton (knee) and Hunter Thompson (concussion), Wyoming was forced to stick exclusively with a zone defense to try to offset its lack of size. Grambling shot 50 percent from the field and from beyond the arc, but the Cowboys neutralized the Tigers on the glass, pulling down a season-high 42 rebounds for a plus-9 advantage on the boards.
The Cowboys also forced 15 turnovers and scored 25 points off of them. Dallas Polk-Hillard led Grambling with 14 points while Axel Mpoyo added 13.
"I thought that was probably a highlight of tonight," Edwards said of the rebounding margin. "I think Justin James and Maldo have done a great job setting the tone because you get in to this point where you have to be a certain size or a certain height to be able to rebound the basketball. I think we have some pretty good athletes that can go up there and get it."
Wyoming came out passive against the Tigers’ zone, settling for long jumpers and 3s. The Cowboys started 1 of 9 from the field as Grambling held a 14-12 lead seven minutes in.
The Cowboys eventually started moving the ball with more patience and worked inside-out with Taylor serving as the catalyst. He scored his first nine points in a span of 3 minutes, 26 seconds, knocking down his second 3 with 10:05 left in the half to cap a 13-2 run that gave Wyoming a 24-16 lead.
A 3 from Hendricks a few minutes later pushed the Cowboys’ lead to double digits for the first time. Grambling got within four with 5:19 left in the half, but James answered with back-to-back 3s to stretch the lead back to 10 -- an advantage the Cowboys maintained until the break.
The Cowboys continued to work the middle of the Tigers’ zone with James and Maldonado, who combined for 24 of their points in the second half.
"Our key thing was to get the ball in the middle to me and Maldo," James said. "Maldo is such a great playmaker when he has the ball in his hands. Instead of forcing it and taking bad shots, we started to flood the corners. We found guys like Jake and guys like TJ to make right and on-balance open shots."