LARAMIE, Wyo. — For three years, Colorado State had no answer for Wyoming. First it was the Cowboys’ stifling defense and Larry Nance Jr. Last year it was two miraculous performances by Josh Adams, including a 37-point outburst in Fort Collins, handing the Rams their second-largest loss in the series since 1992.
Tuesday night, it was the Rams’ big three of Prentiss Nixon, Gian Clavell and Emmanuel Omogbo had no answer for as CSU held on to beat the Cowboys 78-73, notching their first win against Wyoming since Feb. 22, 2014.
The meager crowd of 5,812 was witness to another dominant performance from Omogbo, who racked up his 15th double-double this season with 19 points and 16 rebounds on 8-for-11 shooting. Despite shooting just 5 of 17, Clavell led the Rams with 20 points with Nixon adding 16 of his own, none bigger than a wing 3-pointer with 34 seconds to go that have that put the Rams up 73-69.
The Cowboys made it interesting, though, twice cutting CSU’s lead to two points in the final 30 seconds, but Nixon and Clavell were able to put it away from the free throw line, hitting five of their final six from the charity stripe on a night when the Rams shot just 21 of 34 from the line.
“I thought our team had several chances to crack, and they stayed together as five (players),” CSU head coach Larry Eustachy said after the game. “I think that’s what won it. When somebody was struggling, the other four picked them up.”
The first 20 minutes were a complete tour de force offensively by CSU, which shot 50 percent from the field and hit six 3-pointers en route to a 41-33 halftime lead. The final 20 were a very different story though, with both teams hitting the double-bonus before the midway point of the second half. Wyoming took advantage of CSU’s short bench, forcing Nixon and fellow starter Nico Carvacho to play just 17 minutes in the second half due to foul trouble.
CSU extended its lead to nine points on a free throw by Jeremiah Paige with 5:19 to go, but Wyoming quickly reeled off a 7-0 run to bring them back within two. The Cowboys could never quite get over the hump though, despite cutting the deficit to just one twice in the final three minutes. CSU’s free throw shooting, which had been one of its strengths all year, finally returned to form just when the Rams needed it to, sending a stream of Cowboys’ fans for the exits before the final buzzer sounded.
It was a stark contrast to the past three years, which saw the longest Wyoming win streak in the series since the Cowboys won seven straight between 2000 and 2003.
“Given they beat us (badly) at home last year, it feels good to win on their court,” Nixon said. “It feels good to win on the road in general. I think we’ve won our last four road games, and it’s just an amazing feeling. … It came down to who had more heart. It doesn’t matter if you have seven dudes or 12 dudes or 15 guys, it comes down to who wants it more and who has more heart. You have to compete for the whole 40 minutes, not just 35.”
Whatever it is, CSU’s had a lot of it, winning seven of their nine games since the Rams’ top three reserves were ruled academically ineligible for the spring semester. During that span, CSU has won on the road at Utah State, UNLV, San Diego State and Wyoming, typically considered the four toughest road venues in the league outside of New Mexico.
The shorthanded Rams now sit at 10-4 in the Mountain West, a half-game ahead of second-place Boise State, which lost on the road at New Mexico Tuesday night. They do however, face the toughest remaining schedule of the league’s top teams, traveling to New Mexico next Saturday before hosting San Diego State and Wyoming in a four-day span. Likely their hardest remaining game is their season finale, on the road at Nevada, in a game that could decide who wins the Mountain West regular season crown.
The fact that CSU is even in the championship conversation seems like a bit of a miracle considering the circumstances, but don’t count CSU players as ones surprised by their meteoric rise.
“I’d expect to be playing for first place even if we had five guys,” Nixon said. “You got out there and play with heart every night, anything is possible.”