RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack was far from perfect Saturday night at Lawlor Events Center.
But the end result was the same.
The unbeaten Wolf Pack, playing its first home game in 26 days, survived a serious scare from the South Dakota State Jackrabbits, winning 72-68 in front of 11,257 fans at Lawlor Events Center. The Pack, ranked No. 7 in the country, won for the 11th time this season without a loss and is now just three victories away from equaling the best start in school history (14-0 in 1951-52).
“We just have to get a lot better,” said Wolf Pack senior Caleb Martin, who had 20 points. “We have a lot of stuff to work on.”
The narrow four-point victory is the Pack’s closest game of the season and its slimmest margin of victory since a 75-73 comeback win over Cincinnati in last year’s NCAA tournament.
“It shoudn‘t have gone down like that at home,” Caleb Martin said. “But it is what it is. We’ll just keep moving forward.”
The Wolf Pack trailed 40-33 at halftime for its third halftime deficit in its last four games. “You can hit the replay button,” Pack coach Eric Musselman said. “Bad first half, real good second half (again).”
The Pack outscored the Jackrabbits 39-28 in the second half but the victory was made possible by stingy defense, especially against South Dakota State’s leading scorers, senior Mike Daum and sophomore David Jenkins. The two were averaging nearly 50 points a game combined and the Pack held them to just 10 (five each).
“That was incredible defense,” Musselman said. “Those guys were averaging almost 50 points a game. They move the ball, they share the ball. That’s a real hard team to defend.”
Daum, who is now 45th in NCAA history with 2,551 career points and was averaging 26.2 points a game this year going into Saturday, was just 1-of-10 from the field. His five points against the Pack equals the lowest scoring output of his career (five against Illinois State in the third game of his freshman year). Jenkins, who was 2-of-9 from the floor, had never scored fewer than six points in a game this season.
“The one thing we have done an exceptional job on since we’ve been here the last (three-plus) years is shut down the primary scorers on the other team,” Musselman said. “Some coaches like to let the stars score and shut down everyone else. We do it the other way.”
South Dakota State (9-4), which was averaging 88 points a game before Saturday, was able to keep the game close because Skyler Flatten scored 20 points, Owen King added 13 and Tevin King chipped in with 10. Those three were averaging about 28 points combined entering the game and produced 43 against the Pack.
“We did a good job on their stars but that doesn’t mean we can let everybody else do what they want,” Caleb Martin said.
Musselman gave the bulk of the credit for the defense on Daum to 6-foot-11 senior Trey Porter. Porter had 12 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in 27 minutes.
“Trey was completely dialed in this week in practice,” Musselman said. “We tried different things in practice on how to defend him (Daum) but Trey wanted the challenge. What he did, that was the best defensive performance on one guy (Daum) that I’ve seen since I’ve been here. I think Trey Porter is the best interior defender in the country.”
Porter also made half his shots (3-of-6) and was 6-of-7 from the free throw line.
“I just wanted to make life difficult for him,” said Porter of Daum. “He’s a phenomenal offensive player. I just wanted to make life a little bit rough on him.”
The Wolf Pack, now 48-5 at home (5-0 this year) in the Musselman era, found itself in a familiar situation after the first 20 minutes, trailing at halftime (40-33).
Alex Arians drained a 3-pointer from the top of the circle at the buzzer to give the Jackrabbits their seven-point halftime lead. South Dakota State scored the final 10 points of the half after Caleb Martin’s 3-pointer from the right elbow had given the Pack a 33-30 advantage with three minutes to go.
Owen King started the Jackrabbits’ late 10-0 with a 3-pointer with 2:31 left in the half, tying the game at 33-33. Daum hit his only field goal of the half (and the game) to give the Jackrabbit’s a 35-33 lead with 2:06 to go and Flatten completed an alley-oop dunk off a lob from Arians for a 37-33 lead. Arians then put the final first-half dagger into the Pack with his only 3-pointer of the half at the buzzer.
South Dakota State led for just over 10 minutes of the first half. The Pack shot just 9-of-28 (32 percent) in the opening half.
“That’s on me,” Caleb Martin said. “I have to start knocking down shots.”
Martin, who was 6-of-19 from the floor and 4-of-14 on threes and is now 6-of-32 on threes over his last three games, did knock down shots early in the game. He hit a pair of threes from the right elbow and one from the left elbow and his brother Cody Martin connected from the left side as the Pack took an early 18-11 lead.
South Dakota State, though, countered with its first 10-0 run of the half to take a 24-18 lead with just over eight minutes to go. Once again, it was 3-pointers that keyed the run as Flatten, Owen King and Ryan Krueger connected during the run.
It was 3-point shooting that dominated the opening half for both teams. The Jackrabbits were 6-of-15 on threes. The Pack was 8-of-22 on threes in the opening half and just 1-of-6 inside the arc. That one two-pointer was a dunk by Cody Martin off a fast break pass from brother Caleb that tied the game at 28-28 with just under four minutes to play.
Musselman had very specific orders for his team at halftime.
“He told us that there’s no reason for us to shoot 32 percent and that we had to attack the rim a little bit more,” Porter said.
The Wolf Pack focused on getting the ball inside to start the second half and the strategy paid off in a 12-3 run and a 45-43 lead with 16:39 to go in the game. Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline did hit 3-pointers in the first two minutes of the half but Caleb Martin and Caroline also had dunks and Porter had a layup as the Wolf Pack dominated the first three-plus minutes of the second half.
South Dakota State, which is now winless in three games this season on their opponent’s home floor, did regain the lead at 45-43 on a 3-pointer by Tevin King with just over 13 minutes to play.
The Pack, though, then went on an 11-2 run to seemingly take control of the game, leading 54-47 with 11 minutes to play. Porter converted a 3-point play and Nisre Zouzoua, who had not scored in game since Nov. 23 against Massachusetts, hit a jumper for a 50-47 Pack advantage with 12 minutes to go. Caleb Martin’s layup made it 52-47 Pack and Caroline went inside for a layup and a 54-47 lead.
The Jackrabbits, now 1-15 against Top 25 teams in their team’s 15-year history in Division I, wouldn’t go away. South Dakota State went on a 9-2 run to even the game at 56-56 with just under eight minutes to play. Arians had four points during the run and David Jenkins had the other five, including a 3-pointer that tied the game at 56-56.
The Wolf Pack pulled away in the final five minutes as the Jackrabbits finally went cold from the floor. Flatten missed a 3-pointer with three minutes to go and Jenkins missed from log distance with a minute to play. Arians missed a jumper with two minutes to play and King missed a layup with 1:26 left.
The Wolf Pack, playing the game without sixth man Jazz Johnson (out with a concussion), scored just enough to put away the Jackrabbits. Tre’Shawn Thurman’s jumper put the Pack up 64-60 with 5:19 to go and a layup by Cody Martin gave the Pack a 67-63 lead with 2:48 left.
Porter had a pair of free throws with 2:16 to play and Caroline’s dunk with 45 seconds to go gave the Pack a 71-63 lead.
Caroline, who has now led the Pack in scoring and rebounding in each of the last four games, finished with a game-high 21 points and nine boards but shot just 6-of-14 from the floor. The Pack shot just 34 percent (22-of-65) for the game for its worst shooting performance of the season.
“I think we just kind of settled for threes too much,” Caleb Martin said. “They sagged off us and the three was there for us.”
The Pack was just 10-of-39 on threes, setting a school record for 3-point attempts in a game. The Pack has now made just 19-of-79 3-point shots (21.5 percent) over its last three games combined.
“I think we’ll figure it out so that we’re good on both ends of the court,” Porter said.
The Wolf Pack will now have a week off before hosting Akron at Lawlor Events Center on Saturday (4 p.m.).