LARAMIE -- Either Wyoming or San Jose State was going to end its string of futility Wednesday night because, well, somebody had to.
The Cowboys did so rather emphatically.
In a matchup of teams at the bottom of the Mountain West standings, Wyoming took control in the second half and cruised to a 59-46 win at the Arena-Auditorium. Once it was over, Wyoming’s players high-fived each other and walked across the floor to join fans sitting courtside in rare celebration of a win that’s been hard to come by for a team depleted by six defections since the start of the season.
A jubilant Justin James took it a step further. The Cowboys’ star walked over to the scorer’s table and grabbed the PA microphone to address the 5,787 fans inside Wyoming’s home arena, thanking them for their support amid what’s been Wyoming’s most trying season in decades.
“It was actually off the top, so I’m pretty proud of myself,” James said with a smile. “Just showing my gratitude and all that they do for us. Just hoping we’ll see them next week as well.”
Not only did the Cowboys’ first double-digit win of the season give them their first in league play, but it also snapped their five-game losing streak. It also gave Wyoming (5-14, 1-5 MW) its first win over a Division I opponent in almost two months (South Carolina on Dec. 5).
Meanwhile, San Jose State, the only team with a worse overall record than the Cowboys in the MW, lost for the ninth straight time. The 13-point loss was the smallest margin of defeat for the Spartans (3-15, 0-6) in their six conference games.
“We were able to win 43 games in two years, and you kind of take wins for granted,” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said, referencing his first two years at the helm. “So when you do win one, it actually feels a lot better, especially with this group.”
James led all scorers with 20 points and countered four turnovers with five assists. Hunter Thompson scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half for his first double-figure game since Jan. 8. Michael Steadman was the only double-figure scorer for SJSU with 10 points.
Wyoming had just 25 rebounds, finishing minus-8 on the glass, and did nothing to solve its turnover woes. The Cowboys, who came in averaging nearly 15 turnovers a game, coughed it up 17 more times.
But the Cowboys, who came in allowing more than 76 points a game, put together one of their more active defensive efforts of the season to make up for it.
Wyoming turned the Spartans over nearly as much in allowing its fewest points since the MW tournament championship game in 2015 when the Cowboys held San Diego State to 43. The Cowboys forced the Spartans into 16 turnovers, using 11 of them to ignite a 21-2 run early in the second half that turned a two-possession deficit into a 45-30 lead for Wyoming with 8 minutes, 9 seconds left -- its largest at the time.
The Cowboys, who limited San Jose State to 33 percent shooting from the field and scored 20 points off turnovers, led by as many as 17. The Cowboys finished with 10 steals, including four from James and two apiece from A.J. Banks and Trace Young.
“It was mainly just our intensity,” James said. “We definitely had a lot of mess-ups that were covered because of that edge and the active hands that Coach preaches day in and day out.”
Said Edwards, “That was one of the things we talked about leading up to this game. Not only the pace but just trying to become the best defensive team that we can become. I thought that was a step in the right direction.”
Wyoming shot 56.1 percent for the game, including a 58.3-percent clip in the second half. Thompson, who hadn’t scored more than six points the previous two games, caught fire from deep, knocking down four 3s in the final 10 minutes to help put the Cowboys in position to start their first winning streak of the season Saturday at Boise State, which handed Wyoming a 14-point loss in the teams’ first meeting Jan. 2.
“Our thing has always been let’s just work and get better. Let’s just stay positive through this process,” Edwards said. “Now this feels good at the end of the day, but how can we continue to build on it? That doesn’t mean let’s relax now because we got a win.”
The Cowboys got off to a fast start by scoring the first 11 points and led by as many as 12 in the first half behind 10 points from James, but San Jose State outscored the Cowboys 6-4 over a stretch of 3:04 while James, the MW’s minutes leader, went to the bench for a rare breather. It turned into a 16-2 run for the Spartans as Wyoming gave them plenty of extra possessions with 10 first-half turnovers, and the teams went to the break tied at 24-all before the Cowboys eventually took control.
“We had a spurt in the first half that we weren’t proud of, but continuing to fight hard and even play harder than we did in the first half in the second half is why we pulled away with the lead,” James said.