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University of Wyoming senior Hunter Maldonaldo drives to the basket during the Cowboys’ 77-64 win over the University of Denver on Thursday. Kyle Spradley/UW athletics

LARAMIE – The University of Wyoming basketball team matched its best start since 2014 on Thursday night, but the Cowboys’ momentum isn’t the only thing that’s building.

Over the past two home games, the crowd and energy at Arena-Auditorium has continued to grow. This elevated atmosphere was on full display throughout Thursday’s 77-64 win over Denver.

The Pioneers gave UW trouble early on, and had a three-point lead at halftime. Wyoming took the lead for good with an 8-0 run to start the second half, however, and the A-A was rocking for the rest of the evening.

“M-V-P” and “Ike” chants rang out down the stretch for sophomore forward Graham Ike, who posted career-highs of 35 points and 14 rebounds, as a season-high 4,030 fans in attendance helped spur the Pokes to victory.

“The energy was great tonight,” said Ike after’s Thursday’s game. “We really needed that, and we fed off that tonight – especially in that second half when they got it going a little more. They were rowdy in the first half, but even more in the second half. We just continued to feed off that and it pushed us to get the W.”

Wyoming (7-0) coach Jeff Linder was impressed by the turnout of the crowd, and opened his postgame press conference by thanking the students in particular. The on-court student section along the baseline was close to 100% full, with the majority of the seats filled in the area above it as well.

“The student section was really, really good,” Linder said. “They had a lot of energy. Sometimes as a coach, you worry when you start building and start getting good crowds (like tonight), you don’t want to have a proverbial letdown ... The students, the fans, hopefully we can continue to build off that.

“It just makes it such a different environment, and it’s what makes it a really hard place to play. You factor in the altitude, and then you add the fans – especially the student section. The energy the student section brings gets the other fans a little bit louder as well.”

Thursday marked the Cowboys’ highest attendance since they faced Border War rival Colorado State at home on Feb. 15, 2020. It was also just the third time in the past four years that UW had more than 4,000 in attendance for a non-conference game.

“It gave us a ton (of energy),” senior guard Hunter Maldonado said. “That’s the biggest we’ve had in a while, so to have them come out here and watch us win against Denver is something big.”

Arena-Auditorium has historically been an intimidating place to play – such as in the early 2000s, when the Pokes averaged more than 10,000 in attendance in back-to-back years. The crowd has surpassed 15,000 on 15 occasions, dating back to 1982.

These numbers have dwindled as of late, with Wyoming’s 3,164 average attendance during the 2019-20 season being the lowest in the arena’s history. Knowing the past can be replicated, however, was a driving force that led Linder to Laramie in 2020.

“It’s what makes it a special place,” Linder said. “That’s a big reason why I came here. I knew if you won here, I’ve seen it before, the people will come. We won at Northern Colorado really big, and people didn’t care. That’s why I’m here.

“This is a place where people care, and we have to get those students ... We need them there, and if we can get them there it just makes it that much harder of a place to play. I’m excited to see what Saturday will bring. These guys deserve it. They’re a fun team to watch, they’re a great group of kids and they represent this university and state, so hopefully people from all over the state will make their way here on Saturday to support them.”

The Cowboys will close out their two-game homestand today at 2 p.m. against McNeese (3-5), before heading on the road to face No. 11 Arizona on Dec. 8.

Linder says the fans’ presence will be pivotal in energizing the team, as Wyoming looks to continue its undefeated start.

“We need them on Saturday,” Linder said. “It’s a quick turnaround, having to play McNeese at 2 p.m., so hopefully we’ll have a great crowd. Considering the fact that global warming I guess exists in Wyoming now, there’s no excuse that I-80 or I-25 is going to have four feet of snow on the ground. It’s going to be 55 degrees, and 55 at 7,220 (feet) feels like about 80.

“There’s no excuses for anybody to not come and watch these guys – and I think if they do come, they’ll like what they see.”

Josh Criswell covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at jcriswell@wyosports.net or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @criswell_sports.

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