As the first half played out, it seemed like Wyoming’s men’s basketball team would be able to name its score against the team at the bottom of the Mountain West standings.
But as New Mexico chipped away with one basket and one forced turnover after another, the Cowboys suddenly found themselves in jeopardy of being on the wrong side of it. UW got going when the going got tough, though, and ultimately avoided what would have been one of the worst collapses of the Mountain West season.
Marcus Williams scored 15 points, Hunter Maldonado notched a 14-point, 16-rebound double-double, and the Cowboys fended off a furious UNM rally for a 79-67 win Friday at Clune Arena on the campus of the U.S. Air Force Academy. Kwane Marble added 15 points, including some huge buckets late, for the Cowboys, who led by as many as 27 in the first half.
“If we would’ve lost a game we were leading by 27 points, that would’ve been a tough pill to swallow,” UW coach Jeff Linder said. “But luckily for our guys, they stayed the course.”
UW needed overtime to escape in the series opener 48 hours earlier. Yet the rematch ended up providing just as much entertainment value before the Cowboys held on for their second conference sweep of the season.
It was a tale of two halves for UW, particularly on the defensive end. The Cowboys held UNM to 33% shooting in the opening 20 minutes but regressed back in the second half to the team that’s been in the bottom third of the conference in points allowed and field-goal percentage defense all season.
UW scored the game’s first 21 points as UNM mustered just three field goals through the first 13 minutes and change. The Cowboys were up 33-6 with 7:20 left in the opening half before UNM halted the onslaught and built some momentum of its own heading to the break by ending the half on an 18-8 run.
The shots continued to fall in the second half for the Lobos, who shot 53% from the floor in the final 20 minutes and were shooting 61% at one point. UNM, which got a career-high 30 points from Makuach Maluach, also ramped up the defensive pressure with its full-court press for most of the second half, which was effective in forcing UW into a season-high 17 turnovers, some of which the Lobos turned into easy buckets down the stretch.
“When you have a young team, you get in a situation like that and you get up that many points, you have a tendency to think it’s going to be easy,” Linder said. “And then now you have a team in New Mexico who has nothing to lose and now they’re going to try to press you all game long to try to come back in the game and try to disrupt your rhythm and timing. Credit to them, that’s what they did.”
By the 9:03 mark of the second half, UW’s lead was down to single digits. And once Javonte Johnson turned a steal into a basket 5 minutes, 14 seconds later, the Lobos were within two and threatening to pull off the biggest comeback for a Mountain West team all season (Colorado State overcame a 26-point deficit to beat San Diego State last month).
But UW had the final answer. Marble sank a 3-pointer on the Cowboys’ next trip down the floor to start his own 5-0 spurt, and the Cowboys ended the game on a 12-2 run.
“Lucky for our guys, they kept their composure even if it didn’t look like they kept their composure, especially those last 5 minutes,” Linder said. “Kwane made a huge 3 when we were up two to get it back to five, and then we just found a way to get multiple stops down the stretch to win the game.”
Holding on to the ball helped. Williams finished with just two assists but routinely broke the Lobos’ press in the waning minutes, either getting the ball to a teammate in the frontcourt or getting fouled himself. The Cowboys committed just two of their turnovers over the final 3:52.
The freshman point guard finished 6 of 7 at the free-throw line as the Cowboys shot 76.2% from the charity stripe as a team (16 of 21). The Lobos converted on just 54.5% (12 of 22) of their freebies.
“It’s a man press,” Linder said. “Now they looked to trap on the first pass, but eventually you’ve got to go by somebody.
“(Williams) did a good job when he came back in of helping us break the press. And then from there, I thought, the last 6 or 7 minutes, we did a better job of kind of settling down, getting into the half court and getting the shot that we wanted.”