LAS VEGAS — The Wyoming men’s basketball team entered this year’s Mountain West tournament feeling as though it had yet to play to its ceiling. The Cowboys promptly spent the first 8 minutes of Wednesday’s game in the basement. Or perhaps the trap door underneath the basement leading to a set of stairs going even further underground.
Whatever the structural equivalent of letting an opponent get out to a 25-0 lead is, that’s where the seventh-seeded Cowboys spent their time Wednesday, dropping their one and only conference tournament game to No. 10 seed Air Force 83-68.
"From the jump, we weren't playing as hard as them," junior Hayden Dalton said. "And I can't give you a reason why. But I would say they outplayed us."
The Cowboys had beaten Air Force in each of the teams’ previous meetings by an average of 10.5 points. The Falcons had only won one of their previous 10 games, and this was their first win away from home all year. The loss cost Wyoming an opportunity at a rematch with its rival, Colorado State, seeded second in the tournament.
The Cowboys gave Air Force a 25-point head start as the Pokes went scoreless for the game’s first 8 minutes, 37 seconds. Wyoming had seven turnovers before it had a point. Air Force began the game 14 of 21 from the field, while Wyoming missed its first eight shots.
"We weren't being aggressive on the offensive end," said sophomore Justin James, who led all scorers with 20 points. "We were careless with it. It's hard to score the ball when you turn it over 30 percent of the time."
Cody Kelley entered the game shortly before the 12-minute timeout and got Wyoming on the board with a 3-pointer at 11:23. It was the first shot Wyoming had taken in more than 3 minutes. Following a James jumper, Kelley hit another 3 to get Wyoming back within 20, but Air Force answered with an 8-0 run and Wyoming didn’t get any closer the rest of the half, going into intermission down 48-27.
The Falcons, whose biggest lead over Wyoming in their previous two meetings was four, had more points before halftime than they had in the entirety of their 51-38 loss to San Diego State a week ago. Air Force finished the first half shooting 53.3 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3.
It was the fewest points in a half scored by Wyoming since the Cowboys had 27 in the first half at San Diego State on Jan. 31.
Air Force head coach Dave Pilipovich said his team played more man-to-man defense than it had in its previous two games against Wyoming.
"We started the game man, we switched one through four, and we stayed aggressive on the switches," Pilipovich said. "We were there on the catch, we contested and we didn't give up any second opportunities. And that was big for us."
Added Wyoming head coach Allen Edwards: "I thought the best thing about (Air Force's) defense was just how hard they were playing."
The Cowboys chipped away slightly in the second half, cutting the 28-point lead to 16 at one point on a 7-2 run. But the Cowboys wouldn’t score more than three consecutive points again until they closed the game with a 7-0 run to lose by 15.
The Cowboys struggled to win consistently in conference play -- they won consecutive Mountain West games just once all year -- but they tended to at least raise the opposing coach's heart rate with a significant run. That never came Wednesday.
"It was hard to come back when we're fouling so much," James said. "It's hard to come back when we were giving them easy free throws. But all credit to them. They came out ready to play. And they dominated today."
Air Force took 34 free throws and hit 29 of them (85.3 percent).
"That wins games for you," said Hayden Graham, who had 15 points for Air Force, second behind Jacob Van's 18.
Wyoming, by comparison, was 14 of 20 from the free-throw line (70 percent).
The loss could bring an end to Wyoming’s first season with Allen Edwards as head coach. The Cowboys, who went 8-10 in regular-season conference play, fell to 18-14 overall. After winning the 2015 Mountain West tournament, the Cowboys have suffered first-round losses to lower-seeded teams in consecutive seasons.
Senior Jason McManamen, Wyoming's all-time leader in made 3-pointers had three points, missing all but the last of his six 3-point attempts. Morris Marshall, Wyoming’s only other senior, did not play.
The 15-point loss matched Wyoming's worst in conference play.
"Proud of this group and what we were able to do as a team," Edwards said. "But at the same time you're disappointed in the sense of how today ended."