LARAMIE -- Wyoming has been used to playing a man or two down all season.
This time, the Cowboys came up with perhaps their most complete effort of the season to net a result that's been far less common.
Wyoming withstood some early foul trouble and matched South Carolina's physicality to pull away for a 73-64 win Wednesday at the Arena-Auditorium. The Cowboys also weathered another blow to their frontcourt to notch just their second win in their last six games and their first over a high-major opponent since a road victory at Oregon State on Nov. 13, 2017.
The Cowboys (3-6) will be without Austin Mueller the rest of the season after the sophomore forward tore his ACL on Tuesday. That came a day after Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said fellow forward Lwal Dung has left the team to pursue a professional basketball career in his native Australia.
Senior big Jordan Naughton is on track to return for the Mountain West portion of the Cowboys’ schedule in January but has yet to play in the regular season as he continues to nurse a partially torn LCL.
“I don’t see any defeat in our guys,” Edwards said. “When Mueller went down, it was an, ‘Again?’ type of mentality. … It does help our morale at the end of the day, but I thought our guys game in with the mindset that we’re capable. And like I always tell our guys, that’s how we prepare.”
The frontcourt was further depleted with foul trouble. Freshman forward Brandon Porter fouled out in just eight minutes while Hunter Thompson was limited to just 12 minutes in the first half with two fouls.
Justin James also picked up two quick fouls and sat for nine minutes in the first 20 minutes, but the Cowboys trailed just 37-33 at the break before their execution on both ends of the floor took over.
James still led three Cowboys in double figures with a game-high 20 points and added 12 rebounds and five assists to help Wyoming neutralize its size disadvantage against South Carolina’s bulky frontcourt tandem of Chris Silva (6-foot-9, 234 pounds) and Maik Kotsar (6-11, 264). The Gamecocks (4-4) still finished plus-12 (43-31) on the glass, but Wyoming limited Carolina’s two bigs to 17 points and 13 boards, held the Gamecocks to a 15-percent clip from 3-point range (3 of 20) and turned Carolina over 16 times.
“We just got the job done,” said Hunter Maldonado, Wyoming’s next-highest rebounder with five. “With Hunter being in foul trouble, we were trying to gang rebound, and that was one of the biggest things. We were making them take tough 2s, and that’s what we wanted.”
Wyoming committed 14 turnovers of its own against Carolina’s defensive pressure, but the Cowboys executed more often than not when they held on to the ball to shoot 44 percent from the field.
Jake Hendricks bounced back from a couple of rough shooting performances the previous two games to finish with a season-high 16 points, capping a 14-0 run for Wyoming with a 3 to put the Cowboys up 50-41 with 13 minutes, 30 seconds left. Freshman TJ Taylor added 11 points in 29 minutes off the bench.
“We were just continuing to stay patient. We weren’t settling for bad shots early in the clock,” said James, who scored 17 of his points in the second half. “Whenever we would do the pick and rolls, and I draw that double team I usually have a throwback to (Thompson) or if there’s strongside help, I throw it Maldonado or I throw it Jake. Just continue to get the ball moving and trust that eventually we’re going to find the right shot.”
An old-fashioned 3-point play from Taylor followed by a 3 from James gave Wyoming its largest lead at 56-44 with 10:41 left. Wyoming hit a dry spell, going 4:35 without a basket, as Carolina chipped away to eventually cut the deficit to 63-57, but Hendricks ended the drought with a corner 3 that pushed the Cowboys’ lead back to nine with 2:07 left.
Hendricks, who’d been 0-for-9 from 3 the previous two games, finished 5 of 8 from deep as Wyoming shot 50 percent (10 of 20) from long range.
“I think I took better shots this time,” Hendricks said. “They found me when I was open, and I had my feet set on most of them. When I have my feet set, I’m a pretty good shooter.”
The closest Carolina got the rest of the way was six, but the Cowboys, who went 21 of 28 from the charity stripe, hit their last five free throws to ice the victory -- one that ended their two game skid and gave them a much-needed jolt of momentum heading into the final game of three-game homestand against Denver six days from now.
“With the injuries and all the bangs and bruises that we’ve had, (Mueller’s injury) is kind of the last thing we needed,” James said. “But you could see the fight and the will in this team to step up and get this one for him and this team.”