LARAMIE — The stakes are high for the Wyoming men’s basketball team’s game Wednesday against Air Force, but not quite as high as the last time the two teams played.
The Cowboys and Falcons, who only play one regular-season game against each other this season, faced one another in the first round of last year’s Mountain West tournament. The 10th-seeded Falcons got out to a 25-0 lead and pulled the upset.
“My thing to our staff in preparation is comment on it once and then move on,” second-year head coach Allen Edwards said of that loss. “I don’t want to beat a dead horse over one game that happened last year.”
The players haven’t forgotten, though.
“We definitely have talked about it,” Wyoming senior Alan Herndon said. “And we still have that bad taste in our mouth from that game. We know we have to come out and definitely perform better.”
Though it might not be a tournament game, the Cowboys have plenty to play for Wednesday (7 p.m., Mountain West Network). A much-needed road win Saturday at Fresno State left Wyoming tied for fifth in the Mountain West with two games to go, still in contention for a first-round bye at the conference tournament.
At 5-11 in conference play, Air Force is not a part of that discussion. And the Falcons have had far bigger scheduling difficulties than not seeing a Front Range foe until the final week of the regular season. Because of a schedule thrown into flux by the federal government’s shutdown, the Falcons have already played a game this week, losing Monday at home against Fresno State.
“You can spin it as a positive, playing Monday night,” Edwards said. “In a sense, quick turnaround, in terms of preparation, but to drive to Laramie, I don’t think that’s a big deal. You would think that cardio wouldn’t be an issue, because you just played. So you’ve just got to find that right motivation for your guys.
“And this is that time of the year where what we’ve tried to hit our guys with (is) mental fatigue, physical fatigue is all out the window. It’s all about fight-through right now.”
The Cowboys had a rebound of a defensive performance against Fresno State after allowing 119 points in a home loss to New Mexico. However, the Pokes will have another defensive challenge Wednesday against Air Force’s Princeton offense.
“You kind of throw your defensive principles out the window,” Edwards said. “And that’s usually hard, because defensive principles are habits. So, you throw those out of the window, and you guard action in a sense of your main thing is taking away dead layups with their back-cuts, and then obviously open and on-balance 3-point shots. But back-cuts and slips, so you always have to keep a body between your man and the basket, which, again, is different.”
Wyoming will be without starting guard Hunter Maldonado for the second straight game. Maldonado suffered an ankle injury against New Mexico, and Edwards said there is a chance he could return for Wyoming’s regular-season finale at Boise State. He expects the true freshman, who was on crutches Tuesday, to be ready for the conference tournament.
Seniors say goodbye
As Wyoming’s final regular season home game, Wednesday’s game is Senior Night for the Cowboys. The Pokes’ four-player senior class is comprised of Herndon, Alexander Aka Gorski, Hayden Dalton and Lou Adams.
“Well, they all have contributed in their own special ways to the program,” Edwards said. “Obviously, Al, H.D. and Alex stayed on after me being promoted, and then Lou was one of our first signees. But again, Al and Gorski have been here for five years, so you watch them come in as kids and leaving out as young adults.
“... They’ve all touched the program in a special way, and they will be missed as this program continues to move on.”
Herndon has racked up historic statistics on both sides of the floor at Wyoming.
“Obviously, Al, a thousand-point scorer and top-three shot-blocker in school history speaks volumes to him,” Edwards said.
Aka Gorski’s 134 made 3-pointers are among the 10 most in Wyoming history.
“Though he didn’t shoot it well (this year), I would say one of the best shooters to come through the program,” Edwards said. “High basketball I.Q. and a kid that truly put team over self at the end of the day.”
Dalton earned honorable mention all-conference marks last year, and as one the Mountain West’s leading scorers and rebounders is likely headed for more accolades this year.
“Another 1,000-point scorer and then, again, one of the best shooters to ever come through the program,” Edwards said. “Especially with his size and skill.”
Adams, who joined Wyoming before Edwards’ first season as a junior college transfer, recently scored a career-high 31 points against New Mexico.
“Lou is one of the best athletes to come through this program,” Edwards said, “just with how hard and how intense he plays and how vocal he is as a player.”
The seniors’ college careers are now down to two regular season games and at least one conference tournament game — with the potential for a postseason tournament to follow.
“Nothing else is guaranteed,” Adams said. “We haven’t gotten into any tournaments or anything like that. So we have (three) games guaranteed. So just knowing we have (three) games and I have (three) games left with my teammates and my coaches, just laying it all out on the line.”
Said Dalton: “It’s kind of just been hitting me this past week. It’s a little bittersweet and sad for me, because I’ve loved my time here. It’s flown by.”
Herndon and Aka Gorski are the program’s last remaining players who appeared on an NCAA Tournament team. Herndon said Wyoming’s 2015 Mountain West tournament championship and last year’s College Basketball Invitational were “easily the top two moments (he’s) had so far” with the Cowboys.
“It’s been a crazy five years,” said Herndon, who is from Colorado Springs, Colorado. “Through all the ups and the downs, I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done. I’ve really enjoyed my time here and thank Wyoming for everything it’s given me.”