LARAMIE – Justin James’ final home game was a memorable one, and his supporting cast did a lot to send him and the University of Wyoming men’s basketball out on a winning note.
James scored a game-high 28 points, including 20 in the first half, and four other UW players scored in double figures in an 88-81 victory over New Mexico in front of 4,113 at the Arena-Auditorium on Saturday.
UW (8-23 overall, 4-14 Mountain West) ended the regular season with consecutive victories for the first time. It also snapped a four-game losing streak to New Mexico (13-17, 7-11), the same team that beat the Cowboys by 30 in Albuquerque Jan. 19.
“Down there it was our youthfulness. We let the pace get out of control and that didn’t favor us,” third-year UW coach Allen Edwards said. “This time, we had a little more patience and a little more contributions from other guys.
“Plus, we were at our home.”
The teams meet again at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday in a first-round game at the Mountain West Tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. New Mexico will be the seventh seed, UW the 10th seed.
The Cowboys led for nearly 33 minutes of the game, and by 12 with 3 minutes, 24 seconds remaining after a basket by junior guard A.J. Banks.
New Mexico cut the lead to six, got a steal and looked like it was going in for a dunk. However, the 6-foot-2 Banks affected the dunk by 6-7 sophomore wing Makuach Maluach enough for him to miss.
“It was off instinct, and I’m real eager to jump up and challenge guys,” said Banks, who recorded career highs with 20 points and five assists He also was 9 of 11 from the free-throw line.
“I wasn’t sure he missed it until a little bit afterwards. If he had made it, it would have given them a lot of momentum.”
Added James: “I told (Banks) that was the play of the game.”
The Lobos got no closer than seven points after that, thanks in large part to UW making free throws down the stretch.
The bulk of the Cowboys’ 10 turnovers occurred in the later stages of both halves. Edwards said his team got a “little passive” at times late in the game.
Redshirt freshman forward Hunter Thompson scored in double figures for the first time in 11 games with 14 points, and was 3 of 4 from 3-point range. Junior guard Jake Hendricks added 11 points and senior forward Jordan Naughton had 10 on 4 of 4 shooting from the field and 2 of 2 from the free-throw line.
James added 12 rebounds for his 10th double-double of the season and 17th of his career.
UW was outrebounded 42-30. Junior forward Carlton Bragg, at 6-10, and 6-9 sophomore wing Vance Jackson both had double-doubles. Bragg, a Kansas transfer, had 22 points and 20 rebounds. Jackson, a transfer from Connecticut, added 13 points and 11 boards. New Mexico held a 16-3 edge on the offensive glass and outscored UW 18-2 in second-chance points.
UW’s three big men – Thompson, Naughton and true freshman Brandon Porter – combined for only five rebounds, but Edwards liked how they all battled when in the game. Edwards had Naughton and Thompson on the floor together at times to match up with New Mexico’s size and physicality.
“I didn’t see our guys welter,” Edwards said. “(Bragg) worked his tail off for what he got. He is a terrific basketball player, Jackson as well, but our guys fought.”
James addressed the crowd after the game.
“The emotions were running pretty high, even as the game ended,” James said. “I’m so grateful for this university.”
James scored 20 or more points for the 22nd time this season and 49th time in his career.
Edwards said there is no advantage or disadvantage in playing New Mexico again so soon. He also said the players can’t get too excited based on this victory, either.
The players seem to agree.
“I don’t care who we play. We’ll be ready and have that same energy and effort, and hopefully we will get the victory,” James said.
Added Banks: “We’re going for our first three-game winning streak.”
More James accolades
James secured the MW scoring title this season at 21.8 points per game. He is the fourth UW player to lead the MW in scoring. The others were Josh Adams (2016), Brandon Ewing (2007-09) and Marcus Bailey (2001).
James played in his 130th game for UW, which is tied for the third-most in school history, and is only one of four players to play in 130 or more games for the Cowboys. He also moved past Jeron Roberts (1995-98) for fifth in career free throws made for the Cowboys with 508.
James in one point shy of tying Fresno State guard Marvelle Harris (2013-16) for fourth place on the MW career scoring list. James has 2,030 points.
James’ 20 first-half points Saturday are the most he scored in a first half this season.
Thanks for the ride
Referee David Hall lent a helping hand to UW assistant coach Shaun Vandiver and some family members of Naughton.
Both were stuck in Denver due to road closures into Laramie due to poor weather. Hall was allowed to drive through the closures and he gave Vandiver and Naughton’s family members a ride.
The Cowboys made 10 3-pointers, have reached double-digits for 3s eight times this season and have 240 this season. … The last time UW had five players score in double figures was last season against San Jose State. … UW is 4-1 when leading at halftime, 4-3 in day games and 2-10 on Saturdays this season. … UW snapped a four-game losing streak to New Mexico, but still trails the series 72-68. … Edwards evened his coaching record to 51-51 with the Cowboys. … New Mexico lost eight consecutive road conference games to end the regular season.