He's Back: Hunter Maldando Returns After 330-Day Absence, and Makes His Presence Felt
Hunter Maldando hadn't stepped foot on a basketball court in a game that mattered in 330 days. He was confident that the back and knee problems that had derailed what was to be his sophomore season with Wyoming had been addressed.
And today? Anybody who had any questions found the answers in the Cowboys' 54-40 victory against Idaho State in the 2019-20 season opener at the Auditorium Arena on Wednesday night.
After spending the first half feeling his way around on the court, Maldanado and his teammates exploited Idaho State's obsession with shutting down the offensive potential of Hunter Thompson and Jake Hendricks.
With Maldanado scoring a career-high 32 points -- 28 in the second half -- in 33 minutes of playing time, and the Cowboys reviving the defense-first-mentality of earlier seasons of success, Wyoming walked off the court with reasons to celebrate.
The defense held a Division I appoint to 40 points in a season opener for the first time in 70 years -- since a 42-39 victory against Montana State on Dec. 1, 1949.
That was no surprise. It's an indication that head coach Allen Edwards is getting back to his roots in his fourth year as the Cowboys head coach, and it underscores what a healthy Cowboys' team can accomplish, which wasn't the case in an injury-plagued 2018-19 season that at times had the Cowboys with only seven scholarship players in uniform.
"The first two years we were very talented offensively and played that way," said Edwards. "My M.O., and my background is more on the defensive end of the floor."
It's holding a team to an 18-point first-half -- the fewest a Wyoming team has give up since Indiana State scored just 15 points on Nov. 15, 2015 -- and hitting only 31.9 percent of its shots -- just four of 24 three-point attempts.
And Maldanado was back on the court -- better than ever. The redshirt sophomore from Colorado Springs hit a career-best 12 field goals and career-high-equaling eight free throws en route to those 32 points -- 28 of the Cowboys' 33 second-half points.
"I just saw opportunities and tried to take advantage of them," he said.
It showed what he is capable of, but then that's not a surprise.
Even a year ago, when he appeared in those eight games spread over 39 days, his on-court mindset was visible despite the pain he was battling. Listed as a guard, he had team-highs of 12 rebounds in a game against Grambling, and 15 against Niagara. He averaged 13.8 points and 6.8 rebounds in the eight games before he had to give in to the ailments.
This year? Well, it's only one game that counts, but there was a smile on his face -- and the faces of teammates -- in the aftermath of the season-opener, although he made it clear he doesn't expect every night to be like opening night.
"It was the position my teammates put me in," said Maldanado. "It's stuff we have been working on all summer. Tonight it was me, but like we say, anyone could go off on any night. We don't care who it was tonight. As long as we win we are happy."
And the Cowboys took advantage of the opening, although in the aftermath the emphasis was on the defense. It's long been a foundation for Cowboys success, and it is the focus again.
"That's obviously a point of emphasis of our team, the defensive end of the floor," said Austin Mueller. "To hold a team to 40 points, that's setting yourself up for success."
"One of the big things this summer was coming in defensive minded," he said. "We were harping on defense all summer so when we come out and play other teams we take pride on the defensive end. It is personal to us. I think for the most part we did a good job. It shows what we have been working on all summer."
And it showed what an impact a healthy Maldanado can have on the court for the Cowboys.