Cowboys Hang On to Defeat Utah State, 67-65
By W.G. Ramirez
Special to TheMW.com
LAS VEGAS - For a team hailing from cowboy country, Wyoming's men's basketball program is awfully snazzy. It's flashy when it's on the run, it's electric when its shots are falling, it can pound the ball in the paint and be careful, it may appear blurry when it's dashing past you in transition.
Plain and simple, these Pokes are fun to watch.
And though they came close to squandering a nine point lead with 31.6 seconds left, the fourth-seeded Cowboys (23-9) held on to defeat No. 5 Utah State (18-13), 67-65, in Thursday's quarterfinal clash of the 2015 Mountain West Men's Basketball Championship at the Thomas and Mack Center.
Wyoming advances to play No. 1 seed Boise State (25-7) in Friday's semifinal at 6 p.m. PT.
"I thought we had it in the bag the whole game - just kidding," Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt joked following the game. "At times I didn't think we played particularly well tonight, at times all season. But I have never been around a team I've enjoyed being around more on and off the court. Resilience comes to mind, down seven or eight. They just keep playing."
Junior guard Josh Adams scored eight of his game-high 19 points during a second-half run that saw the Pokes erase a seven-point deficit during a 28-8 run. But it wasn't just the crafty guard's shots - which included a put-back layup, an intense dunk off a rebound and another slam on a breakaway - it was his presence on the floor and nifty passes that had the predominately golden crowd inside the Mack cheering at higher-than normal decibels.
"It's a great feeling, you know, to be competing against the best guys out there. This conference is stacked, every team is solid," Adams said. "It's an honor just to be out there in the fight with your teammates against another team where they're all in it as well. That competitive edge is what the sport is all about. It's just an honor to be out there."
After playing to a 26-all deadlock in the first half, the teams continued their tight affair until Utah State caught a bit of momentum near the 16-minute mark. Trailing by one, the Aggies went on an 8-0 run to move ahead, 41-34, with 14:34 left in the contest.
That's when the T&M turned into Wyoming's playground.
Cowboys guard Charlie Hankerson, Jr. muscled his way through the lane, drew a foul and completed a three-point play to spark Wyoming's big run. Adams followed with a layup to pull the Cowboys within two, and then it was Hankerson again with a layup to the game at 41.
"This is my first Mountain West tournament; it's an incredible atmosphere," said Hankerson, who followed his game-tying layup with a wide smile to the large Wyoming crowd. "The Wyoming fans really came out in full force tonight. We just wanted to make them proud. We're fighting for our careers now. Every game is crucial. That's our mindset."
Following a timeout, Adams drove down the middle of the lane and dished a no-look, wrap-around pass to Derek Cooke, Jr., who promptly slammed it home to the delight of the crowd. After another failed possession for the Aggies, Hankerson drove the left side of the lane, fell to the hardwood and drew a foul while sinking his layup. The 6-foot-4 senior converted the three-point play and like that, the Pokes were ahead, 46-41.
After a more-than four-minute scoring drought, the Aggies finally stopped the bleeding, as Jalen Moore stroked a 3-pointer to simmer things down and pull Utah State to within two. The teams traded buckets until Utah State used back-to-back baskets by David Collette and Moore to tie the game at 51 with 6:17 remaining.
But a 3-pointer by Riley Grabau, a six-foot floating tear drop by Adams and Larry Nance Jr.'s slam dunk pushed Wyoming's lead to seven, 58-51, with 4:00 left in the game. The lead increased to nine on Adams' breakaway dunk at the 1:53 mark.
The Aggies would close the game on a 12-5 run, as the Cowboys missed three of five free throws down the stretch, but managed to hold on after Moore's three-quarters court-length shot sailed over the backboard.
Utah State was led by Moore's 17 points and seven rebounds, while Collette had 11 points and five boards. Julion Pearre and Chris Smith also scored in double figures for the Aggies, each with 10.
"I think the difference was about a stretch in the second half of about four or five possessions where they got just too good of shots," said Utah State coach Stew Morrill, who announced earlier this year he is retiring after this season. "They got layup opportunities driving the basketball. We couldn't get them stopped during that stretch.
"We also were struggling a little bit scoring at the other end. But our defense tightened up. We got back in the ballgame. All the credit in the world to Wyoming. They've got an experienced, veteran team. I think they're playing real well right now."
Morrill, who has an overall mark of 402-154 (.723) since taking over the Aggies in 1998, is currently 12th among active NCAA Division I men's basketball coaches and 41st all-time with 620 career victories.
Willie Ramirez is a Las Vegas-based freelance reporter and Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter: @AP_WG