LARAMIE – It was close to being a historic disaster.
But the University of Wyoming can rest assured that close does, in fact, only count in horseshoes and hand grenades.
A mere two days after a wild overtime win against New Mexico, the Cowboys started Friday night’s finale with the Lobos on a 21-0 run and led by as many as 27 points in the first half. It was going to be cruise control from there, right?
The Lobos said “not so fast,” however, and stormed back on the broad shoulders of Makuach Maluach to cut the deficit all the way down to two points late in the game.
UW needed heroes to stop the ship from sinking. The Cowboys found them in the form of sophomore Kwane Marble II and freshman Marcus Williams.
The guard tandem rescued UW late, combining to finish the game on a 12-2 run, leading the Pokes past the Lobos 79-67.
It is UW’s (12-9 overall, 6-8 Mountain West) first season sweep over New Mexico Lobos (5-13, 1-13) since 2003. Marble and Williams scored 15 points each in the win, and a combined 20 points in the second half.
“Thankful we found a way to win the game. If we would have found a way to have lost that game … it would have been a tough pill to swallow,” UW coach Jeff Linder said. “They stayed the course.
“When you have a young team … you get into a situation like that, when you get up that many points, and you have a tendency to think it’s going to be easy.”
With UW’s lead down to two points with 3 minutes, 36 seconds remaining, Marble hit a huge 3-pointer, the first of his eight late-game points to knock out the Lobos. Williams made 4 of 5 free throw attempts in the game’s closing minutes.
“(Marble is) figuring out how hard you have to work every day in order to be a good player in this league, to be consistent,” Linder said. “He’s come such a long ways from the time that we started up in July, to now. I’m really proud of it.”
For the first 13 minutes of Friday night’s non-traditional UNM home game in Colorado Springs, Colorado, it looked as if the only question at the final buzzer would be how whether UW won by 20, 30 or 40 points.
The Cowboys held New Mexico scoreless for the first 6 minutes, 22 seconds of the game and led 33-6 with just over 7 minutes left in the half. It was about as picture perfect a start as UW, winners of two straight, could have hoped for.
But glee was quickly replaced by a sense of déjà vu as seconds ticked off the clock, as UW surrendered a mini-run to New Mexico as the first period closed. Maluach scored 16 first-half points and helped cut the Cowboys’ down to 14 with 31 seconds remaining in the half.
A 3-pointer at the buzzer from UW junior Drake Jeffries stopped the bleeding and gave the Pokes a 41-24 lead heading into the locker room.
Despite the rough start, the much-maligned Lobos, who haven’t played a single game in their home state this season due to COVID-19 restrictions, found themselves within striking distance following a 14-2 run to end the half.
The Cowboys had also been in this position before, seeing a huge lead slip through their fingers over the course of a game. They weren’t about to let a Texas Southern repeat occur.
Against the Tigers in the second game of the season, UW blew a 19-point halftime lead and lost by two. It was a stunning moment that has stayed with the Cowboys since, and Friday night’s first-half dominance was another reminder that no lead is sacred, particularly when your team is comprised of nearly two-thirds new players compared to a season ago.
But then, the impossible almost happened again.
After a bit of jostling by the teams to start the second half that saw UW jump out back out by 21, the Lobos clamped down on defense, employing full-court pressure that admittedly threw the Cowboys off their game. It was making players think, Linder said. It was keeping them from being aggressive.
The Lobos’ pesky defense and more clutch shooting from Maluach ultimately resulted in a 31-12 run for New Mexico over a nearly 11-minute span. What seemed like an impenetrable lead was down to just two points following a jump shot from Javonte Johnson.
“(New Mexico had) nothing to lose, now they're going to just try to press you all game long to try to get back in the game,” Linder said. “We had those stretches there in the second half where guys got on their heels, guys got a little scared.”
But when times got tough, and the night’s outcome inexplicably hung in the balance, Marble showed what he’s made of.
Following his clutch 3-pointer, the Denver product took a pass on the perimeter straight to the bucket, increasing the Cowboys’ tenuous lead back up to seven. Another layup and-one with less than a minute to play all but sealed the game. With help from Williams’ clutch free throws, UW had escaped disaster.
“(Marble’s) mentality has really changed,” Linder said. “He’s not looking for the shortcut. He’s not listening to outside noise. He's just focused on the day-in and day-out process of trying to become a good player on a good team.”
Four UW players finished in double-digit scoring, with both Marble and Williams lead the way. Redshirt junior Hunter Maldonado finished the game with 14 points, a game-high 16 rebounds and six assists. Maluach led all scorers with 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting.
Friday’s theatrics were hardly the first time these Cowboys have been involved in a roller coaster. UW has played in 11 games that were ultimately decided by 10 points or less. Despite their youth, the Cowboys are 7-4 in those matchups. The team is also 2-0 in overtime.
The growing pains have been tough at times, and things haven’t always been easy for the UW, who have had two different four-game losing streaks this season.
But more often than not, Linder’s squad has come up on the right end of the box score. And each close game the Pokes play in is only going to make them better in the long run.
“They kept their composure, even though it maybe didn’t look like we kept our composure,” Linder said. “We’ve been in a lot of close games. And it’s probably pretty remarkable, with such a young team, we’ve found a way to win a lot of close games.
“(It's) only going to help us going forward.”
WYOMING 79, NEW MEXICO 67
Wyoming: Williams 4-9 6-7 15, Marble II 5-7 4-6 15, Maldonado 5-9 4-5 14, Ike 4-7 2-3 10, DuSell 3-7 0-0 8, Jeffries 3-9 0-0 9, Thompson 2-6 0-0 6, Oden 1-2 0-0 2. Totals: 27-56 16-21 79
New Mexico: Marin 1-3 0-0 3, Matos 1-2 0-2 2, Singleton 1-5 0-2 2, Kuac 0-5 2-3 2, Maluach 11-19 7-9 30, Brown 2-5 1-2 5, Francis 3-5 2-4 8, Johnson 2-4 0-0 4, Manuel 4-9 0-0 9, Wegscheider, 1-1 0-0 2. Totals: 26-58 12-22 67
Halftime: UW 41, UNM 24. 3-pointers: UW 9-26 (Jeffries 3-8, DuSell 2-5, Thompson 2-6, Marble II 1-1, Williams 1-4, Maldonado 0-2); UNM 3-9 (Marin 1-1, Maluach 1-1, Manuel 1-2, Singleton 0-1, Francis 0-1, Johnson 0-1, Kuac 0-2,). Rebounds: UW 35 (Maldonado 16); UNM 32 (Kuac 7). Assists: UW 12 (Maldonado 6); UNM 11 (Marin 4). Turnovers: UW 17 (Marble II 5); UNM 17 (Maluach 4). Blocks: UW 2 (Jeffries, Thompson); UNM 6 (Manuel 3). Steals: UW 10 (Thompson 3); UNM 9 (Kuac 3). Total fouls: UW 18; UNM 21. Fouled out: UNM 1 (Singleton).