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Pokes basketball enters the season with high expectations

The Wyoming Cowboys basketball court at the bottom of a large arena
(Will Walkey/Wyoming Public Media)
The Arena-Auditorium in Laramie is the nation's highest Division I basketball stadium.

Note: The Cowboys recently announced that star forward Graham Ike has a lower leg injury and will be out for an "extended period of time." More details should come soon, but this does alter the men's team's outlook at least for the beginning of this season

If you talk to a returning player from either the men’s or women’s basketball team at the University of Wyoming, they’ll probably tell you last season ended too early. On the one hand, things were relatively successful: both squads finished with winning records and made a postseason tournament.

However, the Cowgirls lost a heartbreaker in triple overtime to UCLA during the WNIT in a contest that could’ve gone either way. The Cowboys didn’t make it past their first game in March Madness: dropping a sloppy game by eight points to Indiana.

Cowboys head coach Jeff Linder said a lot of players left the stadium that night with a bitter taste in their mouths.

“We didn't play one of our better games offensively. But I thought our defense gave us a chance to win that game,” he said. “I think they know that they can compete with anybody in the country, and they're looking for the opportunity to do that.”

This year, the team has that opportunity to compete on a high level. They return several starters, including last season’s scoring leaders Hunter Maldonado and Graham Ike. Ike, a big man who can score and rebound in bunches in the post, was voted Preseason Player of the Year in the Mountain West. The team was predicted to finish second in the conference.

Linder said there’s a lot of reason to believe the hype.

“Fans are gonna see the same in terms of ‘Maldo and Ike getting the ball where they need to get to,” he said. “At the same time, they're gonna see a faster pace, and hopefully a little bit more freedom from the other guys.”

The team also added a couple of transfers from larger programs and didn’t lose a whole lot of talent. Sharpshooter Xavier DuSell is another returning player from last season. He said the players have a couple of goals this year: another NCAA Tournament appearance and a banner in the rafters.

“I hope to just be a versatile threat on both sides of the ball. And just help my team,” DuSell said. “Whether that's make the big shot or get a big stop on defense or just be a good teammate. Whatever it takes.”

On the women’s side, the team was picked fourth in the Mountain West Conference in a poll despite losing a few key starters. The Cowgirls return fifth-year players Tommi Olson and Quinn Weidemann and also added a few transfers. Plus, they’ll look for growth from last year’s Freshman of the Year in the Mountain West, Allyson Fertig.

“There is a little pressure on my shoulders to do a lot better this year. But at the same time, I don't really like to think about that,” she said. “In the end, I want to enjoy basketball. And I want to play for me, and not what everyone else thinks of me.”

Fertig said this year, she wants to up her physicality and become more of a leader on the floor. A native of Glendo, Wyoming, she feels a lot of pride getting to suit up for the Pokes.

“When I was younger, I was like, ‘Oh, I want to go somewhere big’,” Fertig said. “Then I realized, ‘Why do I want to go somewhere big and far away when I could stay in my home state and have people that love and care about me?’”

The team has made the women’s NCAA tournament just twice in its history, most recently in 2021. First-year coach Heather Ezell, an assistant in Laramie before being promoted last year, said another appearance is possible. The Cowgirls have depth at nearly every position and not a lot of exploitable weaknesses, according to Ezell.

“We always hang our hat on defense, and we're starting to really see that growth,” she said.

Players on both teams say a huge help is when fans show up in Laramie to make their home arena a challenging place to play. Wyoming already has a major home-court advantage with one of the highest stadiums in the country. Cowboy Xavier DuSell said the altitude is like a sixth man on the court.

“I mean, they have oxygen tanks over on the opposing teams benches and stuff,” he said. “It's crazy to watch like just another team or like another player just kind of crumble right before your eyes because they're so tired.”

Wyoming basketball will be showcased this season multiple times both in-person and on the big screen. The women’s team got a spot on Fox Sports 1 for a February game in Laramie: the first time the squad has been featured on national television during the regular season since 2012. The men’s team has dates reserved on Fox and CBS.

The Cowgirls open their season at North Dakota Nov. 11, and their first home game is Nov. 15.

The Cowboys host Colorado Christian Monday, Nov. 7.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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