LARAMIE — UC Santa Barbara didn’t have its leading returning scorer to begin the season.
It didn’t matter much the way Wyoming shot.
The Gauchos grabbed their first double-digit lead early in the second half and controlled both teams’ season opener from there, pulling away for a 76-66 win Tuesday at the Arena-Auditorium. Max Heidegger, a first-team All-Big West selection for UCSB last season, didn’t make the trip with a concussion, but the Gauchos’ defense picked up the slack by holding Wyoming to 36.2 percent shooting from the field.
“I thought we took some bad (shots),” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said. “I’d probably say half of them.”
Most of those struggles came from beyond the 3-point line with Wyoming (0-1) jacking up 29 3-pointers. The Cowboys made just five of them, including 1 of their last 13 from deep.
“It was just the shot selection,” said senior guard Justin James, who finished 5 of 14 from the floor with half of his game-high 20 points coming from the free-throw line. “Sometimes even though we were open, some of the shots were rushed. They’re a big strong-side help team, and every time we saw an opportunity to take a 3, most of us took it, including myself. We need to work on shooting the right shots and knowing when to shoot them.”
UCSB (1-0), which led by as many as 13, took a 55-44 lead on Armond Davis’ jumper with 12 minutes, 51 seconds to play. Wyoming spent the rest of the time chipping away behind James, who eventually got going to score 17 of his points in the second half. He also grabbed 11 rebounds for his eighth career double-double.
The Cowboys scored 14 points off 18 UCSB turnovers and cut the Gauchos’ lead to one possession with two free throws from James with 4:21 left. But Wyoming went without a basket the rest of the way, missing its last seven shots from the field.
UCSB used one last 12-4 run to send the Cowboys to just their second non-conference loss at home during Edwards’ three-year tenure.
Oregon State transfer JaQuori McLaughlin led UCSB with 17 points while Devearl Ramsey added 14 for the Gauchos, who shot 51 percent from the field and 37 percent from beyond the arc. Hunter Maldonado scored 12 points for Wyoming while redshirt freshman Hunter Thompson chipped in 10 before sitting the final 10:05 after taking a blow to the jaw, further depleting the Cowboys’ frontline.
Thompson suffered a concussion and may have broken his jaw, though Edwards said the full extent of the injury won’t be known until the Pine Bluffs native undergoes an X-ray. Edwards said he was told by trainers the 6-foot-10, 235-pound Thompson didn’t remember the hit or walking from the court to the training room afterward.
“At the end of the day, injuries have plagued us here a little bit,” Edwards said. “Losing Thompson hurt us to where we had to play smaller than what we wanted to. But I did enjoy the fight of our guys and thought we still had opportunities to win the game.”
Austin Mueller, a 6-6 forward, finished the game at center and could get the start there at Oregon State on Saturday with Thompson out for that game at the minimum. Junior college transfer Lwal Dung and freshman Brandon Porter may also be pressed into action with the frontcourt options dwindling.
Porter was the only one to get any playing time Tuesday, checking in briefly late. Edwards said both will have to earn any minutes they get in practice, with defense being the drawback for both at this point in their development.
“Defensive edge and not having so much of a focal point on the offensive end of the floor,” Edwards said. “How can we affect what we’re doing, especially with their ability in a sense of mobility and athleticism to be able to fly around to defend and rebound?”
With senior forward Jordan Naughton sidelined for the forseeable future with a partially torn LCL, Thompson got his first career start and scored the Cowboys’ first five points. But he picked up two fouls in the first five minutes and sat the rest of the half.
Maldonado hit three of his first four shots from the floor for nine first-half points as the Cowboys used a 12-3 run to take a 19-17 lead with 8:40 left in the half. But with James struggling to get going — he started 1 of 6 from the field — the Cowboys didn’t stay in front of UCSB for long.
Even without Heidegger, who set a school record for 3-pointers last season as a sophomore, the Gauchos knocked down five of their first nine attempts from long range and used an old-fashioned three-point play from McLaughlin with 3 seconds left in the half to take a 39-35 lead at the break.
Wyoming outscored UCSB 28-24 in the paint despite finishing minus-11 (40-29) on the glass.