LARAMIE – While it might have been the new kids on the block that got the University of Wyoming men’s basketball team in a position to sweep Nevada, it was old reliable who made the plays when they mattered most.
Freshman guard Marcus Williams scored 28 points and classmate Xavier DuSell hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with less than 2 minutes to play Sunday afternoon at Arena-Auditorium. With the game still hanging in the balance late, it was redshirt junior guard Hunter Maldonado who scored a pair of tough baskets through traffic in the post to seal UW’s 93-88 win over the Wolf Pack.
It is the Cowboys’ first sweep of the Mountain West’s new two-game series format.
With the victory, UW (10-5 overall, 4-4 Mountain West), now winners of three consecutive games, has surpassed last season’s win total.
“We’re all in it together, and we’re just here to compete and fight until the clock hits zero,” said Williams, who has scored 20 or more points five times this season. “That just shows how much heart we have, and that we’re here to compete and actually win in this league.”
In just his second career game, freshman forward Graham Ike scored 18 points and pulled down six rebounds in 22 minutes of action. Ike spent the past year recovering from a knee injury he sustained as a senior in high school.
Sophomore guard Kwane Marble II, after being held scoreless in the first half Sunday, scored 10 points in the first three minutes of the second half and finished with 13.
Underclassmen scored a whopping 85 of UW’s 93 points – better than 91% of the team’s total.
Sophomore guard Kenny Foster left the game in the second half with a knee injury after scoring 11 points. UW coach Jeff Linder told reporters Tuesday that Foster's injury would force him out for the foreseeable future but that it was not a torn anterior cruciate ligament. There is also a chance Foster could return this season, Linder said.
“(It’s) a really good step in the right direction. We knew we were going to get a big, big punch from Nevada,” Linder said. “For us to respond the way we did after winning the first game with a young team, it's a positive.”
The Cowboys got off to a fast start, holding Nevada (10-7, 5-5) without a field goal for nearly the first 6 minutes of the first half. The Wolf Pack battled back from that 12-1 deficit the rest of the game, however, and found themselves constantly within range of a UW team still experiencing the high and lows that come with being a young team.
UW led 34-33 at halftime but jumped back ahead behind Marble’s strong second half start. The Colorado native hit a pair of 3-pointers and put his head down on a pair of strong drives to the basket to get himself on track.
“(I) let Kwane know the first half wasn’t good enough,” Linder said. “That's the beauty of Kwane, is he's got a short memory. And he came out and really set the tone to start the second half.”
The Wolf Pack continued to battle back, eventually tying the game 75-75 with a Desmond Cambridge 3-pointer with just under 4 minutes to play. With the game once again tied 81-81, DuSell hit a clutch 3-pointer that put UW on top again for the final time.
After free throws got Nevada back within a point, Maldonado stood strong in the post, backing down his defender with deliberate dribbles before hitting a pair of turnaround floaters, the latter of which resulted in a three-point play after a foul.
Though it was Williams who scored 15 points over the game’s final 5 minutes, 39 seconds, it was Maldonado who ultimately put the game out of reach.
“He’s like the glue to us,” Williams said. “He plays defense every minute he's out there, and he plays hard every minute he's out there. And just to know that we can rely on him (in) late minutes to go in and get the win, I mean, that's huge.”
Ike came off the bench and provided an instant spark for UW yet again, proving the sort of difference he can make for the Pokes as the season moves forward. Whether it was his ability to change Nevada’s shots or his low post offensive presence under the basket, Ike looked comfortable and in command. He found his offense as the game went on, eventually getting to a point where he was making turnaround jumpers on the baseline.
“It's been it's been a long, long journey,” Ike said. “Just hard work every day from the jump. A week after surgery, I'm doing physical therapy. So it's just a grind of every day, just can't get tired with the everyday work.
"It's just been great watching the guys and just getting a feel for the game on the side.”
Never one to get too ahead of himself, Linder tempered the importance of winning two games against a Nevada team that had been playing solid basketball prior to arriving in Laramie. Winning any game is important, Linder said.
Plus, things will just get more difficult as the schedule ramps up in the coming weeks, with UW’s next three opponents San Diego State, Colorado State and Utah State among the best the conference has to offer. There is little time to rest on laurels.
But Williams did not shy away from how crucial it was for the Cowboys to pick up these two victories. With every win over a MW foe, UW’s confidence exponentially grows and grows.
“It was huge, just giving us momentum and a lot of confidence going to play the top three teams in the conference,” Williams said. “This is what we needed, just to show teams that we're here to actually win and not just play.”