LAS VEGAS — Wyoming looked like a team ready to exorcise some demons.
For a while, Justin James looked more like the player that’s led the Mountain West in scoring all season. Hunter Thompson had his most productive offensive night since before Christmas. And the Cowboys even held a rare halftime lead in a building that’s haunted them for the better part of two decades.
But Saturday’s game against UNLV ultimately turned out to be more of the same for the visitors.
The Runnin’ Rebels outscored Wyoming 38-24 in the second half to run away with a 68-56 win at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV led by as many 16 in sending the Cowboys to their fifth loss in six games and seventh in their last nine.
It’s also Wyoming’s 17th straight regular-season loss to UNLV (8-6, 2-0 MW) at the Thomas & Mack, a place in which the Cowboys (4-11, 0-2) haven’t beaten the Runnin’ Rebels since 2003.
“I just thought we kind of wilted a little bit whether it was fatigue or whatever,” Wyoming coach Allen Edwards said. “I just thought we played like 27 or 28 minutes of basketball and couldn’t sustain it for 40 minutes.”
James and Thompson gave Wyoming a chance for a while. James had 15 points while Thompson led the Cowboys with 17 points — his first game in double figures since going for 25 against East Tennessee State on Dec. 21.
But the duo combined for just five points in the second half, and only one other player for Wyoming — freshman Trace Young (10) — finished in double figures. Meanwhile, the Cowboys had no answer for UNLV freshman forward Joel Ntambwe, who went 11 of 17 from the field and 3 of 5 from 3-point range as part of a 31-point, 10-rebound effort.
Wyoming led 32-30 at the break and extended the lead early in the second half with buckets from James and Thompson, but Ntambwe scored eight straight points to ignite a 10-0 spurt that put UNLV ahead for good.
The Cowboys went 8 minutes, 31 seconds without a basket until A.J. Banks’ steal and ensuing dunk with 10:22 left ended a 20-2 run for UNLV that extended the advantage to double digits.
In the middle of it all was another injury — one the Cowboys frankly can’t afford. James came up limping early in the second half after rolling his ankle, prompting Edwards to immediately call a timeout in order to give his star player some time to try to shake it off.
“It was a little tweak,” said James, who also had an ice pack on his left shoulder after the game. “I’ll be fine.”
James stayed in the game but was largely ineffective between the hobbled ankle and the extra defensive attention he usually draws, taking just four shots in the second half and missing nine of his last 10 attempts. James, who also had five turnovers and four assists, finished 5 of 16 from the field and is shooting less than 22 percent over his last five games for the Cowboys, who shot just 33 percent in the second half after knocking down half their shots in the first.
“I turned around and looked the other way to be honest with you,” Edwards said. “It was the ankle, and then he did something to his shoulder, too. … But he’s a tough kid, and he’s a competitor at the end of the day.”
Wyoming also didn’t improve in the turnover department. Averaging nearly 18 over their last four games, the Cowboys committed that many leading to 23 points for UNLV. Wyoming forced the Runnin’ Rebels into 17 turnovers but scored just 12 points off of them.
Wyoming’s halftime lead was its first since its 86-78 win over Grambling back on Nov. 14 thanks to the fast starts from James and Thompson.
James knocked down four of his first six shots from the field while Thompson went inside and out to finish the first half with 15 points. The Cowboys’ freshman big was 5 of 8 from the field in opening half and scored 10 straight points at one point, including back-to-back 3s that put Wyoming up 26-21 with 5:10 left before the half.
Wyoming stretched its lead to as many as seven before taking the one-possession lead into the break. But the Cowboys’ season-long issues flared up in the second half to make the final 20 minutes a different story.
“Just a lack of defense,” James said. “We were not keeping the ball in front in our zones, and we weren’t rebounding the ball like we were in the first half. … Us not containing the ball and not rebounding the ball is not a good way to win the basketball game.”