LARAMIE — Wyoming has put together one of its best stretches of basketball recently.
The Cowboys didn’t win at Air Force last week, but they showed the kind of fight that eluded them in each of their previous three Mountain West road games that saw them lose by at least 25 points. Wyoming rallied from a 16-point deficit to push the Falcons to the brink in an 81-76 loss.
Wyoming followed it up with a 74-66 win over Colorado State over the weekend that snapped its three-game losing streak — a game that wasn’t really that close. The Cowboys led by as many as 19, and the Rams didn’t get any closer than three possessions in the second half.
But whatever progress Wyoming believes it’s made over the last seven days will be put to the ultimate test this week.
The Cowboys will face the league’s top two teams before it’s over. It starts with a trip to NCAA Tournament hopeful Utah State on Wednesday and ends with NCAA lock Nevada, the sixth-ranked team in the country, on Saturday at the Arena-Auditorium.
The Aggies had won seven straight before a loss at San Diego State on Saturday dropped them into a tie with Fresno State for second in the MW. A loss at New Mexico on Jan. 5 is the only blemish on the schedule for Nevada, which has notched all but one of its league victories by double digits as its seeks its third straight regular-season conference title.
“That’s why we play the game of basketball,” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said. “We look forward to the challenge.”
Saturday will be the first meeting between Wyoming and Nevada since the Cowboys handed the Wolf Pack one of their three conference losses last season in a 104-103 double-overtime win on Jan. 24, 2018, but first things first.
Wednesday’s game is a rematch of Utah State’s 71-55 win over Wyoming at the Arena-Auditorium on Jan. 12. The Cowboys will have their hands full trying to slow down the inside-out combination of Sam Merrill and freshman big Neemais Queta, who combined for 36 points and 13 rebounds the first time around.
Merrill, who’s second only to Justin James in the MW in scoring at 20.2 points per game, had 22 of those points, including 15 in the second half to help the Aggies take control in what was just a seven-point game at the break. The 6-foot-11 Queta is averaging 9.2 rebounds, fourth-most in the league, giving the Aggies a distinct advantage inside against a Wyoming team that’s last in the MW in rebounding margin.
“I thought when we played Utah State here, we actually played really well,” Edwards said. “Then we just hit a wall both offensive and defensively. Struggled scoring the basketball. But at the same time, I think we’ve gotten better since. And adding Jake (Hendricks) back has helped.”
Wyoming had its best defender, A.J. Banks, chase Merrill around for most of the game the first time around, something Edwards said he probably shouldn’t have done given the Cowboys’ lack of depth. With Hendricks back in the rotation, Edwards said his team will need to switch more between man and zone to keep Merrill and the rest of the Aggies off balance.
“We still have to approach it in a sense of understanding Merrill’s ability,” Edwards said. “We have to always understand where he is on the floor.”
Hendricks’ insertion back in the lineup has helped the Cowboys overcome some of their deficiencies by shooting it at a high clip, particularly from deep. Wyoming, which knocked down a season-high 15 3-pointers against Air Force, is shooting 46 percent from 3 (28 of 61) and 47 percent from the field (49 of 104) over the last two games.
The Cowboys bounced back from a subpar defensive performance against Air Force to hold Colorado State to 42 percent shooting from the floor and just a 33-percent clip from deep. And while turnovers continue to be an issue, Wyoming has cut them down from the nearly 17 it’s averaging in league play to 13 in each of the last two games, including just four in the second half against CSU.
But the level of competition is about to increase dramatically, and Wyoming will need to put it all together this week to give itself a realistic chance of starting its first winning streak of the season.
“Just staying the course and continuing to work on the things we need to do to get better,” Edwards said. “I thought some of that showed in the CSU game. We just want to build on it.”