LAS VEGAS — The Wyoming men’s basketball team knew it couldn’t play New Mexico’s brand of basketball Thursday if it wanted to advance to the semifinals of the Mountain West tournament. The Cowboys tried that last month in Laramie and lost a game in which they scored 114 points in 40 minutes.
Thursday, Wyoming and New Mexico took pity on the scoreboard operators, scoring 73 fewer points than their last go-round. But even with a saner pace of play, the Cowboys failed to push through without their bread and butter. All-conference honorees Justin James and Hayden Dalton shot a combined 8 of 28 from the field, and Wyoming never led in the 85-75 loss.
“We had our chances to put ourselves in position to win the basketball game,” Wyoming head coach Allen Edwards said. “We just didn’t overcome that hump, so to speak, and put ourselves in position to close out the game.”
Unlike Wednesday’s first-round game, the Cowboys started slowly on the offensive end, missing their first four shots from the field as they fell behind 10-1. James, who made all nine of his shots in Wyoming’s defeat of San Jose State, missed his first three shots Thursday, two of which were 3-pointers.
“We spent a lot of time deciding how we were going to guard Justin James,” first-year New Mexico head coach Paul Weir said. “He’s really hurt us in two games, and we did an excellent job on him tonight. We really guarded him with three people, and that was the idea, and we did a really good job containing him.”
The Lobos pushed their lead to 13 with a 6-0 run, forcing a second Edwards timeout less than 9 minutes into the game. The Cowboys came alive with a 19-8 run, cutting the deficit to two on Cody Kelley’s first of two 3s in the half’s final 5 minutes.
Wyoming was outrebounded 19-9 in the first half, allowing eight second-chance points on 10 offensive rebounds to the Lobos. Alan Herndon, who was limited to 7 minutes in the teams’ last meeting because of the flu, led the Cowboys with eight first-half points, including their first three field goals. Herndon rolled an ankle in the first half but returned to the game.
Kelley got Wyoming back within a point with a 3-pointer to open the second half, but the Lobos did enough to keep Wyoming at arm’s length. The gap became double digits with 6:09 to play on a Troy Simons 3-pointer. The Cowboys got back within 3 points on a Herndon dunk, but Dalton missed an open 3, James failed to finish on a layup, and the Lobos used an 8-0 run to bury the Cowboys.
James also suffered an ankle injury but was able to return after walking it off for a while on the sideline. He finished the game with nine points. Herndon scored a team-high 19 points. Dalton had 12 on 13 shots, missing both of his free throw attempts, and Kelley scored 11.
New Mexico’s Joe Furstinger scored a game-high 23 points, with Simons adding 15 and Antino Jackson scoring 11.
The Lobos swept the regular-season series with Wyoming, winning by nine in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and outlasting the Cowboys 119-114 in the highest-scoring game in Arena-Auditorium history.
In Thursday’s penultimate game, seventh-seeded Utah State upset second-seeded Boise State to reach the semifinals.
The Cowboys’ season very well could have ended with the loss, as Edwards said before the tournament he thought the team needed to reach the championship game to have a shot at an NIT appearance. Edwards has also said that Wyoming will not participate in the College Basketball Invitational, which it won last year. Wyoming would finish the year at 20-13 overall, 11-9 in the Mountain West.
“Even without (NIT implications), say we would have won more games or anything like that, our goal is always just to compete for championships,” Herndon said. “That’s the culture that we try to build here. Just compete for championships each and every year, and that’s all we talk about.
“We definitely had that on our mind. Just go out there and just compete and play our hardest, and just give ourselves a chance. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but that’s just how it goes sometimes. There’s a winner and a loser.”