By Kyle Daubs
With 1.6 seconds left, the balance of Drake Jeffries’ night hinged on two free throws.
With a 70-69 lead, David Roddy stepped to the free-throw line with a chance to give Colorado State a win on the road. Roddy made his first free throw but missed the second, and Jeffries, who had committed the foul on Roddy, could take a breath.
Because now, he felt like he knew the outcome.
“I knew if we went to overtime, that game was ours,” said Jeffries.
The local Mattoon High School product did his hometown proud by finishing with 16 points in a team-high 45 minutes as Wyoming defeated Colorado State 84-78 to remain in contention for a regular-season Mountain West Conference Championship.
Once time expired, fans rushed the court in celebration as Wyoming improved to 17-3 and 6-1 in the conference.
“It’s just unreal,” said Jeffries. “One of the assistant coaches said after the game that I have come a long way since being a Division II player. Just being able to step into a role for 45 minutes in a big game of the season, that was great for us.”
On Monday, Colorado State had received votes in the latest AP Poll to be ranked in the NCAA Top 25. Fans at the Arena-Auditorium knew the significance of the win, and they were loud throughout the second half and into overtime.
“That was crazy,” said Jeffries. “I have never been in a game like that before. It made it more fun with everyone jumping around and a lot of students taking videos, pictures, and signing autographs. You just feel like a superstar. I love it. They love us. It’s so much fun with the support we have.”
Jeffries said that this was one of the loudest crowds he has played before this season.
“It was electric. That’s the only way I can think of to describe it,” said Jeffries. “We have played in some big crowds this season. Grand Canyon was a massive crowd. Utah State was deafening. Playing with opposing fans where they have large student sections is a lot of fun. It’s more enjoyable. This atmosphere at home was something incredible.”
The game featured a lot of bright spots. Teammate Hunter Maldonado scored 35 points and recorded seven assists. Maldonado became just the third player in the NCAA this season to record a line like that.
As for Jeffries, he added 16 points, shot 5-of-9 from 3-point range, and played the most minutes out of all players from both sides.
“I am trying to pride myself on being the best perimeter on defense this year,” said Jeffries. “It was a big turnaround from last year because I felt I was really bad defensively. I can now step into that role. The coaches know that I don’t get tired and that I can play for 40 minutes. I have played multiple 40-minute games this season.”
Jeffries said that the team has honed in on defense this year, but individually, he knew that had to be a better defender if he wanted to stay on the court. This year, he believes he is one of the best defenders in the conference, and the way that the team is playing right now, he might have some credibility to back up those words.
“I knew that if I wanted to reach my goals and aspirations, I had to rebound and defend better because, if I didn’t, I wasn’t going to play,” said Jeffries. “The coaches put their trust in me and I accepted that role immensely.”
Jeffries is having a sensational season right now in his senior year. He is averaging 11.4 points per game, 4.8 rebounds and leads the team with 66 3-point field goals on 48.2% shooting. He has started all 20 games.
While many in Mattoon remember his shooting and dunking abilities, all Jeffries wants to talk about right now is his defense. That includes holding Utah State’s Steven Ashmore scoreless in nearly 40 minutes of work. That also includes holding Nevada’s Demond Cambridge, an all-conference selection last year, to just six points.
Now, Wyoming is trying to defend its spot at the top of the conference standings. With the win, Wyoming remains just one game back of Boise State for the lead. Wyoming’s lone loss in the conference was to Boise State on the road, 65-62.
The team will get a chance to get some revenge this Thursday. Wyoming hosts Boise State at home. With a win, it could boost Wyoming’s resume towards making the NCAA Tournament, something Jeffries says he thinks about daily.
“It would mean the world to me,” said Jeffries. “It’s something I have dreamed about since I was five years old and first holding a basketball. I always wanted to be a Division I basketball player. Now, I am here living the dream. I get to wake up every morning and do something I love doing.”
Wyoming was picked to finish ninth in the Mountain West this season.
The team, though, has been proving everyone wrong all season.
With a win Thursday, it could go a long way and he believes this team has a bright future.
“Miracles happen in the NCAA tournament,” said Jeffries. “If we can make it, anything can happen.”