RENO — Marqueze Coleman uttered the two words on Wednesday night the Nevada Wolf Pack has been longing to hear for the last month.
“He made a shot, turned to the bench and said, ‘I’m back,’” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said.
Coleman, who has played sparingly since injuring his ankle on Feb. 24, is indeed back to his old self. The senior point guard scored 20 points and dished out three assists as the Wolf Pack rolled over the Vermont Catamounts, 86-72, in the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational in front of a crowd of 6,133 at Lawlor Events Center. The Wolf Pack (22-13) will now meet Morehead State (22-12) in a three-game series starting Monday at Morehead State. The second and third games of the series will be at Lawlor Events Center next Wednesday and Friday.
Coleman, who played 15 minutes in the Pack’s 85-70 win over Eastern Washington on Monday, played 29 minutes against the Catamounts and converted 6-of-7 shots. Since injuring his left anke he had scored a total of four points in three appearances over 36 minutes before Wednesday.
“It’s so great to see,” said Wolf Pack center Cam Oliver, who had a game-high 23 points and 11 rebounds. “During one huddle I just told everyone, ‘He’s back now.’ I love it. You can see it on his face. He’s happy now.”
Coleman played 16 minutes in the first half and was 4-of-4 from the floor for 13 points as the Pack took a 37-35 halftime lead. At one point in the second half he also looked up in the crowd and said the words, “I’m back, I’m back,” with a big smile on his face.
“I was saying that to my dad,” Coleman said. “That was a good feeling. It also feels good to say it and produce. To be able to say that was huge for me.”
Coleman’s contribution was also huge for the Pack. He scored 11 of his 13 first-half points during a stretch of just 3:54. His first bucket came in the paint and gave the Pack an 18-11 lead. He then drove the lane, drew a foul and made two free throws for a 20-14 lead. His layup put the Pack up 22-16 and his jumper made it 24-18. Coleman, whose last 3-pointer resulted in his ankle injury on Feb. 24 against Utah State, then capped his flurry with a 3-pointer and a 27-22 lead with 6:21 to go in the first half.
“Marqueze changes things for us drastically,” Musselman said.
Coleman’s first points of the second half was a 3-point play that gave the Pack a 55-47 lead with 10:03 to play. He also had two free throws for a 66-53 lead with 7:43 to go and he finished his scoring with a short jumper in the paint for an 85-69 lead with 1:18 to go.
“I just wanted to stretch the limits tonight and see how far I could go,” Coleman said. “I think I saw how far I could go. I’m still not 100 percent. I still can’t jump off my left ankle. I have to jump off two feet still. And it takes me a few steps to really get going. But I felt great. Hopefully I’ll be 100 percent by Monday.”
The Wolf Pack, which has never lost to Vermont in four games, outscored the Catamounts 49-37 in the second half and never trailed the entire game. Vermont (23-14) was only able to tie the game four times, the last time at 33-33 after a 3-pointer by Ernie Duncan with 1:48 to go in the first half. A 3-pointer by Eric Cooper 11 seconds later gave the Pack a lead that would hold up for the rest of the game as Vermont lost in the CBI semifinals for the second straight year.
“Our defense was phenomenal in the second half,” Musselman said. “In the first half we let Vermont get a little too comfortable in their offensive sets. I think we were too concerned with their three ball early on.”
The Wolf Pack held Vermont to 35 percent shooting (12-of-34) in the second half and 39 percent (26-of-67) for the game. The Catamounts scored just two points in the first 6:29 of the second half as the Pack stretched its two-point halftime lead to 48-37. Oliver had six of the Pack’s first seven points of the second half.
“We just started to play defense,” guard D.J. Fenner said. “In the first half we were kind of lackadaisical on the defensive end.”
The Wolf Pack shot 53 percent (28-of-53) for the game and also benefited from a 13-point advantage (the Pack was 24-of-33 while Vermont was just 11-of-17) from the free throw line.
“Our shot selection from 3-point range was phenomenal,” said Musselman, referring to the Pack’s 6-of-12 shooting from beyond the arc. “We got open threes off ball swings and that helped open up the floor for us.”
The Pack turned in one of its better all-around offensive efforts against Vermont. Fenner scored 21 points, giving the Pack three 20-point scorers in one game for the first time this season. “The unique thing about this team is we keep getting better and better,” Musselman said. “Tonight we really moved the ball. We didn’t force threes. We’re scoring the ball now at a high clip (83 points a game in the CBI wins over Montana, Eastern Washington and Vermont).”
Tyron Criswell, who played just three minutes in the first half, contributed 11 points in 24 minutes. Lindsey Drew scored just three points but had eight rebounds and four assists.
“If we rebound and play defense, we’re going to win games,” Oliver said.
“The offense will come naturally.”
“When guys are hitting on all cylinders like they did tonight it can be pretty tough to stop us,” Coleman said.
Oliver was 3-of-5 on threes, setting a career high.
“I told the guys to find me and I’ll knock it down,” Oliver said.
Oliver has averaged 22.7 points and 11 rebounds a game in the Pack’s three CBI games. He’s also shot 26-of-42 from the floor and 6-of-11 on threes.
“I’m just trying to play my role,” said Oliver, who had a dunk for a 74-58 lead with 5:20 to play and a 3-pointer for a 77-59 lead a minute later.
The win over Vermont is also the Pack’s school-record third win in one postseason national tournament. The 2004 team won two in the NCAA tournament and the 2012 team won two in the NIT. The Pack’s 22 wins are also the sixth most in school history.
“Not a lot of college basketball teams can say they get to play for a championship so this is special,” Fenner said.