LARAMIE – A week before the season started, Wyoming redshirt sophomore guard Hunter Maldonado said the scoring role former Cowboys star Justin James previously held was going to be split among a number of Wyoming players.
James averaged better than 22 points per game a season ago for the Pokes but is currently displaying his talents in the NBA for the Sacramento Kings. A single player couldn’t replace James’ production, both Maldonado and senior guard Jake Hendricks agreed.
In the Pokes’ season opener against Idaho State, Maldonado did his best impression of James.
Maldonado scored 28 of Wyoming’s 33 second half points Tuesday night, leading the Pokes to a hard fought 54-40 win over the Bengals at Arena-Auditorium. The Cowboys moved to 78-37 all-time in season openers with the win.
Maldonado was playing in his first regular season game since Dec. 11, 2018, when he injured his back and ankle against Denver.
“Tonight it was me,” Maldonado, who scored a career-high 32 points in the game, said. “But anyone can go out any single night.”
Idaho State’s 40 points were the fewest allowed by Wyoming to a Division I opponent since the 1949-50 season against Montana State.
“That’s obviously a point of emphasis, the defensive end of the floor,” redshirt sophomore forward Austin Mueller said.
If the Cowboys (1-0 overall, 0-0 Mountain West) are going to make strides and leave last season’s 8-24 record in the past, they will have to win some ugly games. At times, Tuesday’s season opener fit the description.
Despite shooting a reasonable 47.1% from the field in the first half, the Pokes found themselves with just a 3-point lead at halftime, due in part to a pair of four-minute field goal droughts, including one that ended the half.
A historic defensive effort, however, kept the Pokes afloat. Wyoming allowed just 18 points in the first half, which is the lowest in a first half under head coach Allen Edwards. Idaho State went just 3 for 13 from 3-point range in the game and shot 31.9% from the field.
Wyoming held Idaho State without a field goal for the final 6:16 of the game.
Edwards has said on several occasions that the Pokes’ identity will need to be on the defensive side of the ball; Hendricks and Maldonado have both said that the culture of the Cowboys, from the moment offseason practices began, was in playing gritty defense.
In an exhibition matchup against Northwest Nazarene and the opener against Idaho State, the Pokes have allowed a combined 32.7 field goal percentage on just 37 made field goals.
So far, Wyoming has taken Edwards’ message to heart.
“I felt like I had a heart-to-heart with the team,” Edwards said. “I thought the first two years we were very talented offensively … but my M.O. is more in the defensive end of the floor.”
The Pokes lead was cut to 6 points with just over six minutes left to play in the second. That’s when Maldonado came to life, scoring 9-straight points for the Cowboys.
No other UW player scored more than 6 points. That’s not a problem, however, if it correlates to wins.
“We do want balance at the end of the day,” Mueller said. “But if we have a hot hand, we’re going to give it to the hot hand.”
At 10 a.m. Sunday, the Cowboys head across the country to face South Carolina. Wyoming won last year’s meeting 73-64.
For Edwards, a trip to Columbia, South Carolina, is special. In addition to being close with Gamecocks head coach Frank Martin, Edwards’ older brother, Doug Edwards, is on the coaching staff. Both his parents were born in South Carolina, as well.
“Coach Martin is a mentor, a dear friend, a father figure. My older brother is there. My mom and dad were born in South Carolina,” Allen Edwards said. “So, we’ll have a lot of family there.”
More than anything, however, a trip to the Palmetto State is a chance for the Pokes to see how far they’ve come and how far they need to go.
“It’s another opportunity to play, and play against a Power 5 school and test us defensively,” sophomore forward Hunter Thompson said. “I don’t think we’ll back down.”