LARAMIE — Lordy, that hurt.
“It freakin’ stings,” CSU men’s basketball coach Niko Medved said of Monday night’s 84-78 overtime loss at rival Wyoming.
“Definitely stings,” said Rams point guard Isaiah Stevens said of the program’s second straight defeat.
Next up: San Diego State (11-5) at home. Friday night. National TV.
The trick for Medved now? Not letting two setbacks in a row turn into three. Heck, make that four, with a trip to Nevada looming on Feb. 8.
“Whether it’s Wyoming, San Diego State, Nevada, whoever the case may be, we have to have the same mentality going into each game,” stressed Stevens, who finished with 17 points and five assists against the Cowboys. “It shouldn’t be up or down, (regardless) of who we’re playing.”
First week of February’s awfully early for a must-win. But for Medved, Stevens, David Roddy and the rest of the Rams, Friday’s showdown with the Aztecs — the same Aztecs who blitzed ‘em by 30 on Jan. 8 — is now officially a must-not-lose.
A three-game streak of conference defeats? With two home setbacks sandwiching Monday night’s sucker punch?
Don’t go there, Rams. Please.
Put up a 0-2 week, and the bracketologists who’d given CSU (16-3, 6-3 Mountain West) the benefit of the doubt for months — thank you Mississippi State, bless you, Creighton — will stop turning the other digital cheek.
Bad blood and ego-bruising aside, there’s no shame in losing to a salty Cowboys (17-3, 6-1) bunch in Laramie. The shame is when said losses fall in piles.
After the way the Rams failed to turn the engine over last Friday night at home against UNLV, you start raising eyebrows. After Monday night’s loss, you start raising red flags.
How much damage can this team do in March without a front-line center? What happens when the Rams run into rosters with long guards and killer wingspans? Or a Power 5 backcourt that features two or three Hunter Maldonados instead of just one?
“When we saw that CSU was trying to deny the ball into Graham (Ike),” Wyoming coach Jeff Linder, the former UNC Bears boss who beat the Rams with the Pokes for the first time, “we switched it up and went through (Maldonado).”
The Pokes have come a long way under Linder, the Lafayette native and former Centaurus product. Cowboys rosters often have a Colorado feel, but from Linder and assistant coach Shaun Vandiver (CU) to big Ike (Aurora, Overland) and wing ace Maldonado (Colorado Springs, Vista Ridge), that Front Range vibe runs deeper than usual.
And deadlier, in Monday’s case. The slithery, 6-foot-7 Maldonado (35 points), a tweener-slash-mismatch for a smallish Rams guards, often did what he wanted in the paint, when he wanted. At 6-9, 245 pounds, Ike (16 points, eight boards, two blocks) somehow made the burly Roddy look small.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Stevens said after Monday’s crusher, a see-saw contest that featured 16 lead changes, 10 ties, spotty officiating from start to finish — and some unexpected brain cramps late.
How Stevens, the Rams’ clutch point guard, misread the shot clock with a 69-68 cushion and 10 seconds left is anybody’s guess. But when time ran out and no CSU shot was fired, it gave the hosts a second life.
“Just lost track of time,” Stevens said later. “Didn’t execute like were supposed to.”
In a ticky-tack game with some strange, ticky-tack calls, how Roddy, CSU’s granite forward, trusted these zebras to let him back down Maldonado on the block, Charles Barkley style, without calling an offensive foul is another mystery.
They didn’t, naturally, slapping the big man with his fifth with 2:00 left in overtime and the game tied at 74-all. The Pokes went on a 10-4 run after that to seal the deal.
Whistles aside, though, this one was fun. Two good teams in a junkyard scrap at 7,220 feet. CSU missed its first five shots but did enough of the ugly stuff on the defensive end to make it moot. The Rams found their feet — and a rhythm — in the first half by beating the Pokes off the dribble and forcing the issue at the rim. The visitors led by as much as seven in the opening stanza, 35-28, on Kendle Moore’s layup with 2:17 left until halftime.
The Rams had averaged 31.3 first-half points in their previous seven league games and 28 points over their previous three — including that 88-74 home stinker to UNLV that had you clicking over to check out the latest episode of “The Book of Boba Fett” instead.
While CSU was trying to get the taste of Bryce Hamilton and his 42 UNLV points out of their collective mouths, the Pokes were frothing from the start. The Rams won both of the games played here last season, and five of the last six.
Wyoming students were crammed onto the floor and underneath the west basket like general-admission seating at a heavy-metal concert. While they weren’t close enough to touch the opposition, they were well within spitting distance.
From 20 rows up, whenever the kids got rocking, you could make out almost every word. Especially the unprintable ones.
With 1.7 seconds and Roddy at the charity stripe trying to either tie or win it in regulation, the PA announcer had to kindly remind the locals to refrain from throwing objects onto the court.
“Roddy, you’re too fat for basketball!” one Cowboys fan snarled in closing minutes. “You should be on the football team. They need it!”
They do, but that’s not the point. For once, the stakes went deeper than the usual bragging rights. The Cowboys went into the tilt ranked 35th nationally in the NCAA’s NET rankings. The Rams’ banana-peel evening against UNLV dropped them to No. 36.
On Monday morning, longtime CBS bracket man Jerry Palm slotted the Pokes as his “last team in,” projected to land in a 12-seed-on-12-seed First Four matchup with St. Bonaventure in sunny Dayton. They’re also the fourth team from the Mountain West on his board, which, given the committee’s annual bias — sorry, preference — toward Power 5 schools on the bubble, also seems a little hopeful. The MW hasn’t had more than three teams qualify for the Big Dance since 2015.
“If we would’ve been fortunate enough to go out and win (Monday), it doesn’t make Friday any less important or more important,” Medved said.
“Whatever happens (after the) next one, we’re in a position to be in position. That’s all you can ask for in the stretch run. We’ve just got to keep battling and find a way to play our best. And find a way to win games.”
Friday would be a darn good place to start. Because if the Rams don’t find a way to change the narrative, the next loss isn’t just going to sting. It’s going to leave a mark.