LARAMIE – The start was solid, and it cut down its turnovers by nearly half over the past six games. But those were about the only positives for the University of Wyoming men’s basketball team.
The Cowboys couldn’t generate enough offense, and they didn’t have a lot of answers defensively in the second half of a 71-55 loss to the Aggies in front of 3,426 Saturday at the Arena-Auditorium.
UW (4-13 overall, 0-4 Mountain West) lost its fourth consecutive game, and has dropped nine of its last 11. The Cowboys also saw an eight-game home winning streak end against Utah State (12-5, 2-2). That run dated back to 1962.
Utah State entered the game leading the MW in field-goal percentage defense (37 percent) and scoring defense (65.9 points per game). UW shot 40 percent (20 of 50) and its 55 points tied for the third-lowest this season.
The Cowboys led by as much as eight points in the first half, but they made only three baskets over the final 6 minutes 58 seconds. Utah State made six of its last seven shots, including a long 3-pointer by junior guard Sam Merrill at the buzzer to give it a 32-25 halftime lead.
The Aggies shot 58.3 percent (14 of 25) in the second half, and went on an 11-2 run over about a four-minute stretch to get a double-digit lead.
“In the first half we were doing a good job of following the game plan, but in the second half they had a lot more open 3s, layups and dunks,” said UW senior guard Justin James, who had a game-high 27 points to go along with 10 rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots.
Third-year coach Allen Edwards said the first 17 minutes of the game went well, but it was too up and down after that. Part of that plan was trying to limit Merrill’s scoring, and 15 of his team-high 22 points came in the second half.
Edwards said junior guard A.J. Banks did a good job of guarding Merrill when he was in there, but Banks left the game two different times in the second half with leg cramps. The second time, Banks had to be carried off the floor.
“The game requires 40 minutes of mental and physical focus,” Edwards said. “The last three minutes of the first half we had some lapses. We came out in the second half okay, but as the game went on, I thought we lost some of the young guys’ focus.”
Edwards said true freshman guard Trevon “TJ” Taylor “grew a little bit” with his 14 points and 4 of 6 shooting from 3-point range. But aside from James and Taylor, no other UW player scored more than five points.
Taylor got the start over senior center Jordan Naughton, who played only 10 minutes due to an injured groin. Naughton played only 10 minutes at San Diego State Tuesday due to that groin injury.
Utah State freshman center Neemias Queta, at 6-foot-11, had 14 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots on 6 of 7 shooting. The Aggies outscored the Cowboys 36-16 in the paint.
Senior forward Dyayne Brown Jr. and junior guard Diogo Brito came off the bench and had 13 and 10 points, respectively.
UW averaged 17.6 turnovers over its last six games, but had nine in this game – six in the second half. Utah State scored 11 points off those miscues.
UW’s next game is this coming Saturday at New Mexico. It gets its first mid-week bye of the conference season this week.
“All bye weeks come at a good time,” James said with a laugh. “We will take this time to rest, get better and get ready for New Mexico.”
James became the eighth player in UW history to surpass 1,700 career points. He has 1,713. James also is ninth in school history in baskets made with 575, and he recorded his fifth double-double of the season and 12th of his career. … UW used its 11th different starting lineup of the season as James, Banks, redshirt freshman forward Hunter Thompson, true freshman guard Trace Young and Taylor got the start. … Freshman walk-on guard Haize Fornstrom of Pine Bluffs – who was added to the roster earlier in the week and also is a walk-on wide receiver on the Cowboys football team – saw his first playing time. Fornstrom played 10 minutes, didn’t score but had one steal. … Eleven of Utah State’s 12 victories have been by double-digits. … UW still leads the series with Utah State 51-28 and is 31-7 against the Aggies in Laramie.
Robert Gagliardi is the WyoSports senior editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @rpgagliardi.