LAS VEGAS — Justin James scored with an impressive efficiency Wednesday afternoon in Wyoming’s first-round win against San Jose State. According to Bleacher Report’s Andy Bailey, just 19 of the more than 3,000 24-point performances this season have come on fewer field-goal attempts than James’ nine. The first-team all-Mountain West junior made every one of those shots, three of which were 3-pointers.
But head coach Allen Edwards’ goal for James entering the Mountain West tournament wasn’t for him to take over the game with his scoring. Just the opposite, in fact.
“I had a good sit-down with J.J.,” Edwards said. “I actually wanted to play him a little bit more at the point so that he could have a little bit more of a Magic Johnson mentality versus a Michael Jordan mentality, getting guys going and letting the game come to him. And I actually though he did that.
“Even though he had 20 points in the first half, I didn’t think it was rushed. I didn’t think it was (an) ‘I’m trying to find my offense’ type of a night. I thought he really tried to get the other guys involved. Did a great job in the first half rebounding the basketball, as well.”
The Cowboys went without traditional point guards Cody Kelley and Nyaires Redding for long stretches Wednesday, and while James did hit his shots from the perimeter, his perfect night seemed to be more of a product of good shot selection than simply red-hot shooting.
“I wouldn’t call it perfect, but I was just taking what the defense was giving me,” James said. “And my teammates trust me to take and make shots. Thankfully, I did. I was getting nice, open ones, and there were moments when I would drive and then collapse and then kick it out, so other players would get open ones. We played a good all-around game, and we’ll be ready for tomorrow.”
James’ 3-point shooting has been down all year. A year after leading the Cowboys in 3-point shooting, he had shot worse than 30 percent there for much of the season. He has begun to heat up of late, though. In his last four games, he has made 11-of-20 3-point attempts, and has at least one 3-pointer in 14 straight games.
“Last year, he was shooting the 3 ball at over 40 percent,” Edwards said. “And what I tried to get him to understand was, ‘You’re taking different 3s than what you took last year.’ And what I meant by that was, ‘You’re just settling. A guy is standing right there in front of you and you’re jabbing, shooting 3s. Or you’re just shooting a 3 with a late hand (in your face).’
“And my thing has always been to any of our guys: ‘If the ball is moving and it touches the paint whether off the drive or in the post and it comes back out to you, I would take those 3s all night. But just to pop it around the perimeter and nobody’s being aggressive and just shoot it, those are not good 3s for us.’ And I think he understood it a little bit better tonight as well.”
James wasn’t the only one scoring efficiently Wednesday. Senior Alan Herndon hit six of his seven shots from the field for 15 points.
“I definitely think (James) sparked the team,” Herndon said, “just his energy that he came out with and just leading us, like he has this entire season, it’s always great to see that. Even I looked up and I was like, ‘OK, he’s definitely going. The rest of us kind of got to get going, too.’ So, he definitely led us.”
Freshman guard Hunter Maldonado, who started Wyoming’s first 15 games of conference play, made his return Wednesday from an ankle injury suffered against New Mexico, which had sidelined him three games. Edwards had said he hoped to get Maldonado in the game early if he was able to go, just to test the ankle. However, Maldonado did not play until the second half.
“Just needed to warm up,” Edwards said. “It’s been a little sore. He (and) actually Lou (Adams) didn’t practice either, the couple times before getting out here. But there was a point in the game I went down and talked to (trainer) Lance (Schuemann to) see if it was OK to put him out there, just to get him going.
“I thought he looked pretty good, to be honest with you, moving wise. But, again, move on, do a lot of preparation for New Mexico tonight. And that will present a different challenge, in a sense of the style of play is different from San Jose, versus New Mexico.”