3 Quick takes: This hurt, but the kids are going to be all right
LARAMIE -- It's been a while since we heard any oohs and ahhs in this building, let alone chants, boos and standing ovations.
That all changed tonight, especially over a frantic final 12 seconds that saw Marcus Williams drill a triple from Rock River to tie this one at 72-72. Unfortunately for the home team, it took just six seconds to watch -- literally -- Colorado State guard Kendle Moore drive the length of the court and lay in an easy bucket with just six ticks remaining.
Kwane Marble's last-second, desperation heave didn't go as the buzzer sounded on the Cowboys' third straight loss.
We all know why this one hurts even more than most.
Early in the week, Jeff Linder downplayed his first crack at the Pokes' biggest rival. He said the Border War doesn't feel like much of a war right now. You know, COVID-19, injuries and youth will lead you to say things like that.
But what about now? There were just 2,000 fans inside the Arena-Auditorium tonight, but at times, seriously, it felt Dome of Doom-ish.
"That's the beauty of the University of Wyoming," Linder said. "It's the one school in the state. Now, if you put the right product on the floor, they will come out. Not sure if that's the case down south. You know, a good team like them, I'm not sure how many people they would have in their gym."
Is that a dig? It sounds like a dig.
Good. That's what this week was missing.
The right product was on the floor for the Cowboys for much of this one. Graham Ike showed flashes of why Linder thinks he could be one of the best big men in this league. He finished with just eight points, most of those came from bashing away in the paint, followed by a pretty touch.
He also did his part in locking down CSU's leading scorer, David Roddy.
Xavier DuSell was up to his old tricks again. He nailed five three-pointers. His biggest contribution also came on the defensive end, where he suffocated the Rams' second-leading scorer, Isaiah Stevens. He helped hold him to a season-low six points on 3-of-8 shooting. Stevens fouled out with 3:51 remaining.
And how about the play of Marcus Williams?
Stop me if you've heard this before: this kid is a star.
Williams netted 17 points on the night, including that three to tie it late. He also dished out six assists. It was a work of art. He would drive the lane and kick it. He would mosey around the perimeter and fire in the no-look kinds. He would battle down low, act like he was going up for the bucket only to find a wide-open man. Namely, DuSell, who also finished with 17.
"He's not scared of the moment," Linder said of Williams. "He wanted the ball and made a big shot."
Oh, and he did this, too:
Yes, the defensive breakdown at the end was ugly. It was way too easy and it cost them. There were plenty of missed shots, too. Hunter Maldonado missed one in crunch time. Coming off a set play late in regulation, Drake Jeffries got an open look from beyond the arc. He air-mailed it.
Wyoming put up 36 three-pointers. They hit just 10.
All of those guys I just mentioned above are true freshman. They are 18 year old's, playing in their 18th college basketball game.
Losses like this hurt. They are discouraging, especially when there were a half-dozen pockets of CSU fans around the arena to rub it in. Maldonado called it salt in the wound to lose like that.
To that team, no doubt.
There are going to be a fair share of 30-point losses and ones that end just like this.
"You got a bunch of puppies," Linder said. "So, I mean, that's just part of being young ... They have to learn and get better."
Consistent winning is around the corner for this program. The trajectory of their youth movement has been rapid. The players who stuck around -- Hunter Thompson, Marble, Maldonado and Kenny Foster -- are probably mentors before their time.
Here's another reason to believe this team is building something special.
It's 10:12 p.m. The Cowboys (10-8, 4-7) just lost a heartbreaker to their most hated nemesis, yet Jeffries is below me, as we speak, draining triples all by himself.
You think that air ball is sitting well with him?
"It's a matter of time, but it's a process, and sometimes it's a little bit slower than what people want," Linder said about his team's success. "We're going to be there at some point in the not too distant future."
Let's make a little noise
Linder's opening comments to the media tonight weren't doom and gloom. Is he mad his team lost and gave up an easy one at the end? You bet. But he sees the bigger picture ahead.
If you are wondering what that picture is, re-read the story above.
No, what actually made a smile crease the coach's face was the fact that there were fans in this place tonight. I don't think he even minded the ones from Fort Collins.
"That actually felt like a college basketball game," he said. "In the last nine months, you haven't seen a lot of normal, but they brought a lot of noise. Tonight, I mean, it just felt really good. Now, it hurts to lose, but to see people in the stands, to see people screaming and booing, just the energy and emotion, it's just something that has really been missing."
The last time fans were in attendance here was way back in mid-December. There were never 2,000 people in the crowd during the first five games of the season.
Williams sure felt it.
"Oh man, that's been a minute. That feeling was great," he said. "It was my first time really to experience that type of atmosphere so I loved it."
What about when 15,000 fans are here?
"I was telling my teammates that before the game," he said. "I can't wait."
A full 40
Maldonado was visibly upset after this one. After all the hard work he put into guarding the 6-foot-5 monster known as Roddy, and holding him in check throughout, a few let ups led to this loss, in his mind.
"Yeah, absolutely," he said of the frustration of the way this one ended. "I hate losing."
Sure, it's coach-speak: We need to play a full 40 minutes. Every possession matters. We can't allow teams to shoot 61 percent.
Linder preaches it daily, yet this keeps happening.
The youth excuse won't run its course until next year, so prepare for that. But the exhaustion factor is one that is hard to swallow if you don't follow this team.
They play on the highest court in the nation. How can this team be tired toward the end of games?
The answer is simple: UW has just eight healthy scholarship players.
"It's been a very odd season," Marble said on Wednesday. "Not being able to go 5-on-5 like we would like because of the virus, tracing and all that (injuries), has been rough. The young guys have done a great job adapting and getting used to game speed and the college level of hoops, but they were thrown into the fire right away."
This team isn't getting reps in practice, that's coming in games.
Maldonado became the 39th player in Wyoming basketball history tonight to score 1,000 points.
"As good of a player he is, I mean, he's that much better of a human being," Linder said. "... I'm thankful that I've had the opportunity to coach him. He's a guy that wants to be here. He wants to see things turn for the better. And we are getting better."
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