Hunter Maldonado had Wyoming fans holding their breath.
And then the senior forward took the oxygen out of the packed arena by willing the Cowboys to a 68-61 road victory over Grand Canyon on Monday night in Phoenix.
Maldonado, who limped to the bench holding his knee late in the first half, returned to score 15 of his 17 points in the second half to keep the Cowboys (4-0) undefeated.
“Knowing Maldo, I knew he was going to bounce back,” UW head coach Jeff Linder said. “Thankfully, he did. He put forth a great effort in the second half.”
UW, which gave up 22 offensive rebounds that helped GCU attempt 22 free throws, squandered a 13-point lead and trailed 61-60 after a basket by guard Chance McMillian with 2:25 remaining.
Drake Jeffries answered with a clutch 3-pointer that sparked an 8-0 run by the Cowboys to end the game.
Maldonado made it a four-point game with 43 seconds left and Xavier DuSell’s dunk with 19 seconds left put an exclamation point on another statement win for UW.
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“My voice is a little scratchy, but God bless Wyoming and the natural resources we have,” Linder joked after not being able to find a bottle of water at GCU Arena before his postgame interviews. “Hell of an effort by our guys. I can’t say enough about how we scratched and clawed and found a way to win in one of the toughest environments in college basketball.”
Forwards Graham Ike (13 points) and Jeremiah Oden (12) also scored in double figures for UW during the defensive tussle.
Holland Woods, who scored 25 points in GCU’s 91-64 win over Prairie View last Wednesday, did not play due to the flu.
Gabe McGlothan had a double-double (17 points, 12 rebounds) and Jovan Blacksher scored 15 of his game-high 20 points in the second half to lead the Lopes (3-1).
UW held GCU to 19-for-64 (29.7%) shooting from the field.
“You never rise to the occasion, you always fall back on your training,” Linder said. “Our guys are really understanding of what we’re trying to do from a defensive standpoint. They really understood the game plan.”
The Pokes led 26-18 at the intermission and 31-18 after a basket by Maldonado with 19:00 remaining.
GCU took its first lead of the second half, 45-44, on a 3-pointer by McGlothan with 10:07 remaining.
UW’s experience from holding off Washington’s comeback bid and pulling out a 77-72 overtime win last Thursday in Seattle proved to be invaluable down the stretch to silence a raucous crowd.
“At no point during the Washington game, when Washington made that run, did we blink,” Linder said. “We didn’t show any bad body language. Our guys did what we needed to do, and that was just focus on the next play. When you’re on the road in a hostile environment that’s all you can do.”
The Cowboys will host Hastings College at 7 p.m. Friday at the Arena-Auditorium.
Follow UW beat writer Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @By_RyanThorburn