LARAMIE – With a 1 minute, 25 seconds remaining in regulation and UNLV on its heels, University of Wyoming men’s basketball coach Allen Edwards knew his team was on the cusp of a rare highlight in a season that hasn’t produced many.
UW – losers of its last three games and winless in Mountain West play – found itself up by seven late with a chance to seal the game with free throws.
Up until it wasn’t.
The Cowboys missed 5 of 6 free throws in the game’s closing minutes. Leading by two with just 12 seconds left in regulation, UW appeared to get a game-winning stop as the shot clock expired on a UNLV shot attempt. The Cowboys were called for a foul, though, sending Donnie Tillman to the free throw line, where the junior tied the game and sent it to overtime. UW was outscored 15-6 in the extra period and fell to UNLV 78-69, the Cowboys’ fourth loss in a row. They remain winless in conference play.
Freshman guard Kwane Marble II scored a team-high and career-high 19 points off the bench in the loss.
“It’s more difficult than others because you’re dealing with youth, and sometimes when you’re dealing with youth, you need a bright spot. And this was an opportunity for that, because they have been working hard,” Edwards said. “You ask any coach in the country to be up seven (late), I think anybody takes that. But we couldn’t close it out.”
Senior guard Jake Hendricks and redshirt sophomore forward Hunter Thompson, who entered the game shooting 87.5% and 65.5% from the free throw line, respectively, missed five consecutive shots from the foul line in the game’s final 1:25. Hendricks, who scored 18 points on 6 of 17 from beyond the 3-point line, missed a 3-point attempt with 7 seconds left in regulation that would have given the Cowboys the lead and likely the win.
“It was pretty tough. We’ve had a rough season. I thought we played really well. We kind of just gave them that win. It had nothing to with what they did,” Hendricks said. “We missed our free throws.”
UW (5-13 overall, 0-6 Mountain West) had a record-setting first half performance defensively, holding a fairly potent Runnin’ Rebel offense to just 21.7% shooting. It was the best defensive performance in a half since Jan. 7, 2015, when UW held Colorado State to 20% shooting in Fort Collins. UNLV didn’t hit its first field goal until more than 6 minutes into the game and went just 5 of 23 in the first. Having been in a defensive slump the past two games, it was a welcomed sight for the Cowboys.
In the second half, however, the Rebels shot 50% from the field, including 5 of 13 from 3-point range. After only losing the offensive rebounding battle by three in the first half, UW surrendered 10 offensive rebounds and only collected two the remainder of the game and was outrebounded 52-28 overall. What were contested UNLV shots at the rim in the first half turned into easier put backs in the second.
“Our energy on the defensive end in the second half was really bad compared to the first half. If we would have carried that over, I think it would have been a different ball game,” Marble said. “Honestly, I think we were kind of content with where we were at. We started to coast. And you can’t do that.”
Despite all that, UW appeared poised to overcome UNLV’s second half surge. Marble scored 13 points in the second, the biggest of which was a go-ahead 3-pointer with just over 5 minutes to play in regulation. Marble’s make was followed by a Hendricks 3-pointer with less than 2 minutes to play, helping build the late seven-point lead.
By virtue of UW’s missed free throws and timely baskets by UNLV’s Nick Blair and Marvin Coleman, the Rebels trailed by just 2 points with 12 seconds to play. Tillman went up for a basket at the rim as the shot clock expired and, for all intents and purposes, the game appeared over after he was unable to get his shot off before the buzzer. Redshirt sophomore guard Hunter Maldonado was called for a foul, though, much to the astonishment of Edwards and the announced crowd of 3,000 fans at Arena-Auditorium. Tillman hit his free throws and turned the game on its head.
“In the midst of games, some of those calls don’t get called. And you will often hear a lot of people say, ‘Let the players win the basketball game.’ I’m not saying swallow your whistle … if he got clobbered? I get it. But there was a lot of commotion down there, a lot of bodies,” Edwards said. "But you know what? They made the call, and their kid stepped up to the line and put both of them in.”
With Saturday’s loss, UW remains the only team in the Mountain West without a conference win. On the heels of an 8-24 season a year ago, the Cowboys find themselves in an eerily similar situation as 2020 starts. Hendricks is not worried about things snowballing from here, however. He believes that, despite the pain of this loss, UW took a step forward Saturday. Now, it’s about finishing.
“We’ve shown all year we have the ability to bounce back” Hendricks said. “We’ll all be alright. We’re all really confident in ourselves. We’re trusting the process.
“It’s frustrating, but we still have to come in and work every day, and that’s what we do. We come into practice and work our butts off every day wanting to get better, wanting to get wins. And we do everything we can to get a win. And sometimes, it just doesn’t work out.”
Michael Katz covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @michaellkatz.