The Wyoming Cowboys are doing their best to make the WAC basketball race a two-team affair.
Shooting a smoking 64 percent from the field, the 'Pokes edged BYU 77-72 Saturday night in the Marriott Center.The loss drops the Cougars to 4-3 in WAC play; the Cowboys are 5-1 and pursuing the league-leading Utes.
BYU Coach Roger Reid acknowledged that the loss makes it tough for his team to contend in the WAC. His players understand that, too.
"You can't lose at home and win the WAC," guard Mark Heslop said.
BYU had several chances to win this one in the final minutes. The Cougs led 67-66 with 3:24 left, but Wyoming went up 69-67 on a pair of free throws by Reggie Page and one by Reggie Slater.
BYU's Jared Miller then missed a short jumper, Shawn Bradley missed a bank shot seconds later, and then Steve Schreiner fouled Slater on the rebound.
The Cowboy forward hit both shots for a four-point lead, and Miller scored on a short turnaround to cut it to 71-69. Bradley was called for goaltending a shot by guard Maurice Alexander, but BYU's Mark Heslop fired a three-pointer to trim the lead to one.
With 12 seconds left, BYU's Scott Moon fouled Alexander, and he made both free throws despite a deafening roar from the near-capacity crowd of 22,623. Heslop then got off a three from the top of the key that would have tied it, but the shot bounced in and out and Slater rebounded and was fouled. His two free throws with five seconds left clinched the win.
The shot that almost tied it reminded Heslop of a similar situation in BYU's season-opener, when he barely missed a three-pointer that would have sent the game into overtime.
"That last one just won't fall for me," he said. "This one felt good, too."
Wyoming Coach Benny Dees also thought it was in.
"I held my breath," he said. "It was dead in there."
Up to that point, Heslop was the Cougar hero. He came off the bench to hit three straight three-pointers in the final four minutes of the first half, giving them a big offensive boost. He led the Cougs in scoring with 17.
The Cowboys benefited from some long-range marksmanship too, firing jump shots in the faces of Cougar defenders time after time. Slater, who battered BYU in Laramie last weekend, took just three shots and was held to 10 points. Other Wyoming big men had similar problems.
"BYU is a tough team for us because the big guy (Bradley) just takes away our inside game," Dees said.
Not that it hurt them. The 'Pokes kicked it back outside to junior-college transfer guards Paris Bryant and Maurice Alexander, who combined to score 40 points. Bryant, who had 21, was five for five from threepoint range; Alexander had 19 and was the only Cowboy who took the ball to the hoop effectively.
"Everybody said if we'd stopped Slater last week, we'd have won," Reid said. "I told people they were a well-balanced team, that they had other people, and they do."
"We were luckier than a big, old, fat goat (huh?) to shoot the ball that well on the road," said Dees.
BYU, on the other hand, shot inside, outside and in-between but only hit 38.8 percent.
So if Wyoming shot so well and BYU shot so poorly, why was it so close? Two reasons: Wyoming committed 16 turnovers, and BYU grabbed 16 offensive rebounds.
BYU Coach Roger Reid said he had no complaints about his team's defense, despite the Cowboy's field-goal percentage.
"There are times when you feel like your team worked hard and gave it all they had," he said. "That's what happened tonight, but we still got beat."
At the start of the game, both teams shot well. Wyoming opened in a man-to-man defense, and Bradley scored the Cougs' first six points in seemingly easy fashion.
"I thought he was going to set an NCAA scoring record," Dees said of Bradley. "We tried to play him straight up, and we couldn't stop him."
Wyoming switched to a zone, and it eventually took its toll. BYU made seven of its first 10 shots, then made two of its next 16. The Cowboys, meanwhile, with big guys Slater and Page in foul trouble, successfully pushed the ball upcourt on offense, trying to get shots off before BYU could set up its defense and Bradley could block them.
Even though they shot poorly, the Cougs hung in there and led at halftime, 41-38, on a Mark Santiago 25-footer at the buzzer.
In the second half, BYU jumped out to a six-point lead while managing to get Alexander and Slater in foul trouble - and on the bench. The Cougs' chances looked good about then, but a five-minute stretch without a field goal allowed the Cowboys back in.
Besides Heslop, Cougars in double figures were Bradley, 16; Schreiner, 12 (but five of 13 from the field); and Moon, 10 (three of 13).
Reid predicted that his team would still make a difference in the league.
"I know one thing, we're going to have a say in who does win it," he said. "I'd hate to have to beat BYU to win it."
GAME NOTES: More Dees praise for Bradley: "At this stage of his career, he's the best big man I've ever seen. I heard (UNLV coach Jerry) Tarkanian say that, and I agree with him. He's going to terrorize this league." . . . Wyoming took only 17 shots in the second half, and made 11.