San Jose State’s men’s basketball team couldn’t have asked for a much better start in its first game back from its extended layoff. The Spartans opened the Mountain West Tournament by making 55% of their shots en route to 45 first-half points.
It didn’t matter.
Given the way Graham Ike and his teammates were rolling on the offensive end, nothing else mattered.
Wyoming got a career-high 32 points from its freshman big man, and the Cowboys used their most prolific shooting performance of the season to play at least one more day at the conference tournament. By the time UW was done blistering the nets inside the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Wednesday, the Cowboys had their highest scoring output in three years in an 111-80 win over the Spartans.
“We did what we needed to do. We executed the game plan,” UW coach Jeff Linder said. “That’s all you can ask for.”
Fellow freshman Xavier DuSell added 19 points, Hunter Maldonado had 17 points, and Marcus Williams, UW’s leading scorer all season, got back to double digits with 15 points and a career-high 10 assists for the Cowboys, who shot a season-best 59.7% from the floor. The point total was the highest for the Cowboys since scoring 114 against New Mexico on Feb. 20, 2018.
Only UNLV (120) and New Mexico (117) have ever scored more points in a Mountain West tournament game, but the teams needed overtime against each other in 2002 to get there. UW’s output Wednesday set a tournament record for the most points in regulation.
“Honestly we just found the open man,” Ike said. “Just drives and kicks whether it be to a 3 or to a dump-off or even a layup. We were out there playing hard and making the right reads.”
The 31-point win, which matches the second-largest margin of victory UW has ever had in the tournament, moves the Cowboys into Thursday’s quarterfinals. That’s where things figure to get much tougher against the league’s regular-season champion, San Diego State, which swept UW earlier this season by a combined 57 points.
But thanks to their collective hot hand and a defensive effort that improved as the game wore on, Wednesday belonged to the Cowboys.
The teams went back and forth to start in the highest-scoring first half in tournament history. The Spartans, who had their final three games of regular season canceled because of coronavirus-related issues, didn’t look like a team playing its first game since Feb. 21. SJSU kept pace early by knocking down six of its first seven 3-pointers.
The Spartans tried to defend UW primarily with a zone while occasionally switching to man in the half-court, but SJSU had no answers, particularly when the Cowboys went inside to Ike. The 6-foot-9, 245-pounder made eight of his first nine shots and had a career-high 21 points before the first half was over.
“Just getting to some actions in the post,” Ike said. “We felt like we had a little bit of an advantage down there, and that’s what we got to.”
Said Linder, “We felt we had the mismatches inside whether that was with Graham or with Maldo. We had a pretty simple game plan coming in, and our guys did a good job of executing it.”
Ike helped the Cowboys shoot 64.7% in the first 20 minutes on their way to a 59-45 halftime lead. And with UW virtually netting an automatic two points any time it got the ball to Ike on the block, the Cowboys continued to feed him.
He made all but two of his 14 shots and finished 8 of 10 from the free-throw line to help UW rack up a season-high 52 points in the paint. Ike’s 32 points were not only the most for a freshman in the tournament’s history but also most for any UW freshman in the Mountain West era.
He also grabbed eight rebounds, Maldonado had a team-high nine boards, and the Cowboys finished plus-3 on the glass to win the rebounding battle for the third time in four games. Since having a rough go of it in his matchup with Utah State’s all-conference center, Neemias Queta, three games ago, Ike is shooting 83% from the floor (20 of 24) with 49 points and 14 rebounds.
“You can’t put a price on what’s inside him and his heart,” Linder said. “He got his butt kicked by Queta, and he came back the next day and was like, ‘Coach, I got my butt kicked. You know what? It’s not going to happen again.’ Sometimes that’s a good thing. And since that time — UNLV and this game — he’s kind of been a man on a mission.”
The Cowboys also made 11 3-pointers with five coming from DuSell, who scored 10 of his points in the second half. While the Cowboys’ shots continued to fall, SJSU ran into a stingier UW defense out of the locker room.
UW held the Spartans to 30.3% shooting after halftime and limited SJSU to just two of its nine 3s in the second half. The Spartans got 18 points from Richard Washington and 15 from Omari Moore, but they had just two field goals for a stretch of more than 10 minutes midway through the second half.
That’s all UW needed to run away with one of the more impressive performances the Mountain West Tournament has ever seen.
“We had to say (at halftime) that we just can’t get complacent,” Ike said. “We’ve just got to keep getting stops, keep getting kills on the defensive end and make sure we keep talking over ball screens. Just keep playing hard.”
Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.