University of Wyoming freshman guard Xavier DuSell shoots a 3-pointer while being defended by Colorado State’s Adam Thistlewood during the Cowboys’ 74-72 loss Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, at Arena-Auditorium in Laramie.

LARAMIE – The overall defense wasn’t up to the standard University of Wyoming head coach Jeff Linder would have preferred Thursday night against Colorado State. After all, surrendering a field goal percentage of better than 55% isn’t something to write home about.

But there were silver linings to be found, particularly in the department of individual defense. The Rams feature a pair of the most dynamic players in the Mountain West in guard Isaiah Stevens and forward David Roddy, who average 14.9 points and 15.9 points per game, respectively.

While Roddy wound up with 15 points in CSU’s last-minute 74-72 victory in the first Border War of 2021, none of it came particularly easy. Stevens, meanwhile, was held to six points on just 3-of-8 shooting.

The man largely responsible for the defense on Roddy was redshirt junior guard Hunter Maldonado, while freshman Xavier DuSell was the man tasked with stopping the ultra-quick Stevens.

DuSell made most of his headlines for his sharpshooting Thursday night, finishing with 17 points on 5 of 10 from 3-point range. But his defense on Stevens was worthy of praise in itself. Stevens did not attempt a single free throw and committed five turnovers.

“(Stevens is a) first team all-league guy, and he’s a guy that if you can’t get through the ball screens, and you can’t stay attached to him, he’ll cause a lot of problems,” Linder said.

As far as Roddy is concerned, Maldonado did what he does best: he made life difficult. Roddy is listed at 6-foot-5 and 252 pounds. What he lacks in length, he more than makes up for in bulk and ability to establish himself in the post.

But Maldonado and freshman center Graham Ike did their best to contest all of Roddy’s moves in the post. There were no easy baskets for Roddy Thursday night.

And despite his strong effort on a player outweighing him by more than 50 pounds, Maldonado remained unsatisfied.

“I was going be guarding him. I knew it was going be a tough matchup. He’s a great player,” Maldonado said. “He kind of started going in that second half. I have to find a way to get in more stops, sit down and help the team out a little more. Go out there and find a way to win.”

As the teams prepare to face off one final time in the regular season today, the Cowboys are prepared for another battle. They are well aware that the collective defensive effort has to be far better than it was in the first game. Letting teams shoot 60% or better in a given half isn’t a typical recipe for success.

Linder harkened back to his days at Northern Colorado during Thursday night’s press conference. He mentioned that while he was widely lauded for his teams’ offensive prowess, it was strong defense that was the backbone of their three consecutive 20-win seasons.

His teams allowed under 70 points a game in each of his last two seasons with the Bears, including a 62.7 points-per-game average last season that ranked 23rd in the nation. For reference, the Cowboys are allowing 77.2 points per game this season, good for 310th nationally.

Linder expects the Cowboys to get better sooner, rather than later; the tight losses like Thursday’s will eventually turn into victories. But it’s going to have to start on the defensive end.

Having limited bodies in practice and a team filled with young players is certainly part of the issue, Linder said. But things have to get better, regardless.

“I mean, if we could force a team to shoot under 50% the way our offense is, I mean, we probably don’t lose very many games,” Linder said. “Right now, it’s not good enough. But we’ve just got to keep trying to get better.”

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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