(MCT) — NORMAL — Anyone who left Redbird Arena with 12 minutes left Tuesday night wouldn’t be shocked to hear it was a 14-point game at the end.
Who won the game would be an absolute stunner.
Wyoming, which appeared to be headed for its first defeat, roared back to pull off an 81-67 victory over Illinois State in a Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge contest before a crowd of 6,561. The Cowboys outscored the Redbirds, 36-7, in the last 12 minutes.
“The effort and intensity and focus in the second half after we got up big, it was the first time I’ve seen that from our group and hopefully the last,” said ISU coach Dan Muller, whose team led 50-31. “I’ve got to do a better job of getting us to play a full 40 minutes. That’s about as disappointed as I can be right now in our team.”
ISU (5-3) had only one basket after taking a 60-45 lead. The Redbirds also committed 12 turnovers and made 3 of 10 free throws in the last 12 minutes.
“It’s very shocking. How we played tonight is definitely not how we play,” said Tyler Brown, who led ISU with 22 points but had six turnovers. “It’s very disappointing and something we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board and work on in practice. We have to get better.”
Wyoming (9-0) placed all five starters in double figures, paced by forward Larry Nance Jr. with 19 points. The comeback even caught the Cowboys by surprise.
“In the first half we gave up too many 3s,” said Nance, as ISU hit eight 3-pointers in taking a 43-29 lead. “Coach (Larry Shyatt) pulled us together in the locker room and we knew that was not our identity. Defense is what we pride ourselves on all year and all last year. We knew had to ramp it up in the second half.”
Despite playing without guard Riley Grabau (sore knee), the Cowboys summoned a second wind that caught Shyatt a little off guard.
“Why the energy was what it was I just think they embraced adversity,” said Shyatt. “It’s something all of us want, but if it was easy to do they would sell it at Wal-Mart and we all would buy it.”
When Jon Ekey nailed a 3-pointer with 17 minutes left, the Redbirds appeared on cruise control with a 50-31 lead.
John Wilkins then got hot for ISU. He had four straight Redbird baskets, including two 3-pointers, as the Redbirds enjoyed a comfortable 60-45 advantage with 12:24 left.
But Wyoming suddenly got some life, helped in part by a slew of ISU turnovers, and kept chipping away.
Derrious Gilmore sank two free throws to finally put Wyoming ahead, 67-66, with 4:22 left. ISU’s Nick Zeisloft was then fouled on a 3-point attempt.
After a timeout, Zeisloft missed all three free throws. That seemed to be the final nail as the Redbirds couldn’t recover.
“We got on our heels, and when you get on your heels and the other team becomes the aggressor you don’t want to have the ball,” said Muller. “We had a lot of guys who did not want the ball. We have not shown that up to this point in practice or games.
“We lost our confidence and ability to do anything offensively, but our defensive intensity was not where it should be the entire game. Even when we got up we were forcing turnovers, but other than that we did not guard very well.”
Ekey added 13 points for the Redbirds, while Wilkins chipped in 12. Jackie Carmichael, who came in averaging 16.7 points, was held to five points on 2-of-5 shooting from the field.
“We just turned the ball over. That was our biggest thing. We couldn’t handle the ball,” said Ekey. “They threw up a token press and we coughed it up way too much. It led to easy layups at the other end … it seemed every other play they were getting a dunk.”
Luke Martinez scored 17 points for Wyoming, while Leonard Washington and Josh Adams each added 15 and Gilmore 13. The Cowboys shot 64 percent from the field in the second half to finish the game at 54 percent.
ISU faces Western Michigan (6-2) at 7:05 p.m. Saturday at Redbird Arena.