LAS VEGAS — Slow starts have been an issue for the Wyoming men’s basketball team this season, especially away from the Arena-Auditorium. And compared to their second half Wednesday at the Thomas and Mack Center, the sixth-seeded Cowboys did start slowly against the 11th-seeded San Jose Spartans.
All-conference guard Justin James only hit 7 of 7 shots in the first half, with only three 3-pointers and only three free throws. The Cowboys only built an eight-point lead before the game’s third media timeout and only led by 10 points at halftime.
All that felt practically tortoise-like in comparison to Wyoming’s torrid second half. The Cowboys parlayed a 10-point lead, which had taken nearly 20 minutes to acquire, into a 20-point lead in less than 2 minutes of second-half action. That lead swelled to as many as 27, and the Cowboys moved on with a 74-61 win.
“Our goal was to come out and give them no hope and play as hard as we possibly can,” James said of the second half. “And that’s what we did.”
The win was Wyoming’s first in the Mountain West tournament since winning the tournament in 2015. The Cowboys will play New Mexico late Thursday in the quarterfinals.
James scored 24 points in 26 minutes, looking more than deserving of the first-team all-Mountain West honors he received from the league’s media and coaches. He made all three of his 3s, all six of his 2s and all three of his 1s. The last time a Cowboy shot 100 percent from the field with as many as nine attempts was then-sophomore Jordan Naughton in last year’s season opener against Western State.
Twenty of James’ points came before halftime. In that half, the Cowboys pushed their advantage to eight points three different times before getting it to double digits. Alan Herndon hit a layup in the closing seconds of the first half to do it.
San Jose State, which won just one conference game this season, got the entirety of its first-half points from Jaycee Hillsman (16) and Ryan Welage (14). The rest of the team went a combined 0-for-6 from the floor. It took 23:48 for a third player to score (Caleb Simmons).
What took Wyoming 19:58 in the first half took 1:52 in the second. The Cowboys quickly pushed their 10-point lead to 20 with four makes on four shots to start the second half, forcing San Jose State to call timeout before 2 minutes had passed.
Wyoming scored the first 11 points out of halftime and later pushed the lead to 27 with a 17-6 run. The Spartans got back within as few as 13 to end the game, but Wyoming was able to sit its entire starting lineup down the stretch.
Herndon became Wyoming’s career leader in games played in Wednesday’s start, with 132. He scored 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting with two assists and two blocks. Alexander Aka Gorski (11) and Hayden Dalton (10) were also in double figures, though Dalton accounted for more than a third of Wyoming’s misses. Dalton and Aka Gorski led Wyoming, which put 12 players on the floor, with 27 minutes played each.
Wyoming started sophomore forward Andrew Moemeka for just the third time this season. Freshman Hunter Maldonado, who missed Wyoming’s final three regular-season games with an ankle injury, did not start but made his return to the floor in the second half.
The Cowboys’ last Mountain West tournament game was a loss to No. 10 Air Force last year in which the Falcons began the game on a 25-0 run and Wyoming missed its first eight shots. Wednesday, Wyoming hit its first five shots of the first half and first four of the second.
With the win, Wyoming has reached 20 wins in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2011-13. Allen Edwards is the first Wyoming head coach to win 20 games in each of his first two seasons.
The Cowboys and New Mexico tip off at 9:30 p.m. Mountain Time on Thursday (CBS Sports Network). The third-seeded Lobos beat Wyoming in the teams’ two regular-season meetings, the last of which was a 119-114 shootout in Laramie.
Though New Mexico was the only team to get a first-round bye that Wyoming did not beat in the regular season, the Cowboys don’t necessarily mind their second-round matchup.
“We know what happened in the regular season against New Mexico,” James said. “We’ll be thinking about it, and we’ll be ready to play. ... We just play whoever’s in front of us. But like I said, we weren’t sad that we’re playing them.”