AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP)—The Wyoming Cowboys entered Clune Arena with a depleted roster and they exited with a deflated one, too.
With three of their starters sitting out for fighting and another sidelined with a bum ankle, the Cowboys had no chance for another close game against Air Force, losing to the 17th-ranked Falcons 88-43 Saturday.
Dan Nwaelele and Jacob Burtschi, whose last-second shot beat Wyoming in Laramie last month, each scored 18 points in limited minutes and the Falcons (20-3, 7-2 Mountain West) turned a 46-18 halftime lead into a 45-point final margin that was the biggest in conference play in the league’s nine-year history.
Air Force coach Jeff Bzdelik liked his team’s focus and execution but didn’t particularly enjoy things.
“I didn’t like today’s game,” Bzdelik said. “I didn’t like sitting there. I didn’t like anything about it, from a coaching standpoint. It’s just very unfortunate. The most anybody played was 23 minutes. (The suspensions) just took away from the afternoon, to be honest with you.”
Cowboys coach Steve McClain appreciated the sentiment.
“They spent all week getting excited about playing the Wyoming team they’d played earlier in a great game. The competitiveness of them—they didn’t want to be part of it, either,” McClain said. “They wanted all of our guys here, and let’s line up and play. But that’s the unfortunate part, it couldn’t happen.
“This is something I hope I never experience again in my lifetime.”
The Cowboys (13-10, 4-5) got 13 points from freshman Eric Platt but had little else to stem the Falcons’ scoring machine in Wyoming’s worst defeat since a 101-51 loss at Cincinnati on Nov. 29, 1995.
“It’s unfortunate because we always have had such great competitive games with Wyoming,” Bzdelik said. “And we will in the future. As a competitor, you look forward to those kinds of games, you do.”
The previous seven games between the schools had been decided by no more than five points.
Center Daaron Brown missed his third straight game with a sprained left ankle and three players missed the game as punishment for fighting in the closing minutes of Wyoming’s loss at New Mexico last week.
Brandon Ewing and Brad Jones, Wyoming’s top two scorers, were suspended for Saturday’s game and Jones must also sit out the rematch with New Mexico next month. Joseph Taylor was suspended indefinitely.
That left junior guard James Spencer as the only regular starter in a patchwork lineup that included sophomore Ike Okoye and three freshmen—Ryan Dermody, Travis Nelson and Platt—making their first collegiate starts.
“It was really difficult out there,” Spencer said. “It was the first time I ever had to run point guard. … It’s harder than everyone thinks. I’m glad it’s over.”
Spencer’s putback to open the scoring gave Wyoming its only lead of the game before the Falcons used a 19-3 run sparked by their fullcourt trap to take a commanding lead that would never be threatened.
“They knew they had a wounded team coming in. They weren’t going to let us hang around,” McClain said. “We couldn’t get a basket in the half-court offense to slow them down.
“You line up and throw the ball up and human nature makes you believe you can win the game. But I knew going in that if they made shots early, we’d be in trouble.”
All of the Falcons’ starters were on the bench with 14 minutes left, but Air Force still surged to a 74-30 lead with 7 1/2 minutes left thanks to three straight 3-pointers by Andrew Henke, who had 11 points. And Eric Kenzik’s baseline jumper with 4:40 left gave Air Force its biggest lead at 83-33.
“We know we’ve got to keep it in perspective,” Burtschi said. “They were missing four of their starters. But you know what? It’s a confidence builder.”
Jones and Ewing, the league’s top scorer, will be back for the Cowboys’ next game, at home against BYU on Tuesday night.
“We’re going to move on,” McClain said. “Hopefully we’re going to get Daaron Brown back and get to having more of what we need on the court. These kids came out and played as hard as they could. That’s the positive we’ll take out of it.”