University of Wyoming freshman Xavier DuSell led in the Cowboys with 19 points Monday against Air Force

LARAMIE – Following a devastating three-point loss at Air Force over the weekend, University of Wyoming men’s basketball coach Jeff Linder showed his Cowboys an HBO documentary. They had time given the fact they were essentially stuck in a hotel in this era of COVID-19. But it was also time the team learned what it takes to overcome hardship amid adversity.

The team watched a movie about the famous trio of fights between boxers Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti. The documentary focused heavily on how Gatti overcame Ward after losing their first bout. Ward was not going to quit no matter what, and Gatti had to know it was going to be an all-out brawl from start to finish.

The lesson Linder wanted his team to learn was what eventually Gatti finally realized: to defeat Ward, “you had to kill him to beat him,” per Linder. Air Force, who overcame a 14-point second half deficit to stun the Cowboys on Saturday, was Ward in this case. The Falcons were never going to give up, no matter how dire things looked.

Linder wasn’t 100% sure if all of his players were alive for those fights, which took place starting in 2002. But the point remained: the Cowboys had to be the aggressors from tip off to final buzzer.

On Monday, in the rematch between UW and Air Force, the Cowboys played the part of Gatti. They beat the Falcons down and gave them no chance for a comeback.

Behind hot shooting from behind the 3-point line and rugged defense, the Cowboys snapped a four-game losing streak and cruised past Air Force 77-58.

UW hit 16 3-pointers, the most since 2016 when they hit that same number against Northern Iowa.

“Air Force is a lot like Micky Ward,” Linder said. “They weren’t going to quit. We need to be Arturo Gatti.”

In the first matchup between the teams, UW was cruising before Air Force hit a flurry of shots over the final 15 minutes to sneak out with what seemed like an unlikely win.

The second game between started out similarly for the Cowboys (8-5, 2-4), who made eight 3-pointers in the first 11 minutes of the game and nine in the first half overall. The last longball of the opening period came following a blocked dunk attempt from freshman Xavier DuSell. The ball fortuitously bounced into the hands of redshirt junior forward Hunter Thompson, who happened to be in position to take a 3-pointer from the corner as the buzzer sounded.

Thompson’s shot hit nothing but net. Wyoming’s halftime lead ballooned to 15.

It was that sort of half for the Cowboys; it was eerily reminiscent of Saturday’s game where UW led by eight heading into the locker room.

The difference this time, however, was that the Cowboys kept punching when they returned to the floor for the final frame. The lessons learned from Ward-Gatti came into play.

UW shot 50% from the field and made seven more 3-pointers in the second, but the biggest difference was defensively. Air Force (4-8, 2-6) shot a scorching 65% from the field in the second half of the first matchup. This time the Falcons shot 56%, though that stat was inflated by late Air Force scoring late buckets when the game was already out of reach.

During his tenure at Northern Colorado, Linder’s best teams focused on two things: shooting 3-pointers and defending the 3-point shot. UW did both on Monday, hitting 16 of 32 from deep while surrendering just 1-of-12 shooting on the other end.

The Cowboys’ 15-point halftime lead increased to as many as 27 points in the second. UW was unrelenting, putting their foot on the Falcons’ throat in a fashion that would have made Gatti smile.

DuSell led UW in scoring with 19 points, hitting 5 of 9 from behind the 3-point line. Five players finished in double-digit scoring for the Cowboys, and Thompson pulled down 10 rebounds. 

“It feel like we’ve been in Colorado Springs for about two months. We’ve eaten about 10 meals out of a box,” Linder said. “(But) they showed a lot of resiliency and a lot of maturity.

“The intensity and the effort on the defensive end wasn’t just good enough Saturday …. The guys did a really good job of executing the game plan (Monday).”

During the first part of the season, UW was winning nearly all of its close games. The Cowboys were the kings of late-game theatrics, winning five games during a six-game win streaking by nine points or fewer. But over the last couple of weeks, UW’s youth reared its ugly head at inopportune times.

The Cowboys lost three-straight games by 20 points or more against Fresno State and Boise State. Then, in the opener against Air Force, UW folded down the stretch, an uncharacteristic trait for a group that seemingly relished crunch-time situations.

Following that loss, Linder said he was unsure which members of his team were “all in.” It was time for a gut check of sorts.

While handily defeating Air Force two days later surely showed him a hearty resilience, Linder was quick to note that, “everyone is bought in when you win.”

More important than the result in the final box score was how the team handled itself in defeat, how players dealt with adversity and how the team prepared itself following two, three or four-game losing streaks.

Monday was a small sample size, to be sure, but Linder was nonetheless pleased with the Cowboys’ resolve.

“We responded in the right way,” Linder said. “You’re not going to remember the wins and losses. What you’re going to remember is when you’re in the film room or coach is getting after you … and how you stuck together.

“In the end, that’s how you build a championship team.”

Michael Katz covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at mkatz@wyosports.net or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @michaellkatz.

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