No. 6 Nevada Wolf Pack survives scare against Akron, 68-62

RENO — Nobody said perfection was going to be easy.
The Nevada Wolf Pack survived yet another scare Saturday afternoon at Lawlor Events Center, outlasting the Akron Zips, 68-62, in front of a crowd of 10,825.
“I’m not happy,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said. “I don’t feel like we are escalating upward now.”
The Wolf Pack, ranked No. 6 in the nation, never led by more than nine points in improving to 12-0 on the season. The Wolf Pack has not had a lead of more than 10 points at any point over its last four games.
“Obviously, we know we’re a better team than this, winning by six at home,” said Caleb Martin, who had 19 points and 10 rebounds for the Pack. “We just have to figure out a way to extend our leads. We have the talent and the pieces to be a real dominant team.”
Martin, who now had a double-double in two of the last three games, put the victory over Akron (7-5) in perspective.
“At the end of the day, it don’t matter how you win, whether its ugly or not,” Martin said, “as long as you win.”
Musselman’s concern is totally on the Pack offense, which scored a season-low in points against Akron. It is the Pack’s first game under 70 points since the 69-68 loss to Loyola Chicago in last year’s NCAA tournament. The Wolf Pack has also scored under 80 points in each of its last six games after scoring 83 or ore in each of its first six games.
“We just keep getting worse and worse and worse, worse, worse and then we get even worse,” Musselman said. “We were a real good offensive team at the start of the year but now we have become a team that struggles to score and make shots.”
The Wolf Pack shot 42 percent (21-of-50) for the game overall and 33 percent (8-of-24) on 3-pointers. Those numbers were a marked improvement over the Pack’s previous game when they shot 34 percent (22-of-65) from the floor and 26 percent (10-of-39) on threes in a 72-68 win over South Dakota State on Dec. 15.
Musselman, though, didn’t acknowledge any such improvement after beating Akron.
“Opponents are standing in the lane and letting us shoot and we’re settling for threes,” Musselman said. “When pass the ball and get good shots, we make them. When we don’t pass the ball, we take bad shots and miss them.
“This is the most frustrating I’ve been in four years offensively that I’ve been here.”
Jordan Caroline, who scored 19 points on 6-of-13 shooting, broke down the offensive struggles into their basic form. “We’re just not making shots,” Caroline said. “I feel like we’re doing a great job moving the ball. That’s just the way things go sometimes.”
The Wolf Pack outscored the Zips 17-5 over the last 5:22 of the first half to take a 28-25 lead at the break.
But it was the 20-11 Akron lead after a 3-pointer by Jimond Ivey with 5:47 to go in the half to cap an 8-0 run that Musselman talked abut after the game.
“We have to have an edge to start every game,” Musselman said. “We don’t have that edge of desperation to start the game. You have to dig your feet in the and and become more competitive out of the gate.”
The Zips also had an early 9-0 run on a pair of 3-pointers by Loren Crist Jackson and a 3-point play by Daniel Utomi to take a 9-3 lead five minutes into the game. That 9-0 run was aided by a four-minute scoreless stretch for the Pack.
Akron led for 12:20 of the first half and the Pack led for just 3:33. More than half of that 3:33 took place in the final two minutes of the half as Caroline hit a 3-pointer for a 27-25 Pack lead and added a free throw with 18 seconds to go.
The Pack’s three-point lead is its smallest of the season at the half this year. The Pack has led at the half seven times, trailed three times and has been tied once in its dozen games this year.
“We obviously have to get back to the drawing board and figure it out,” said Caroline of the first-half scoring struggles.
Caroline, who scored 11 first-half points, keyed the Wolf Pack offense in the first 20 minutes. The 6-foot-7 senior scored all 11 of his first-half points in the final four minutes of the half. His first 3-pointer tied the game at 20-20 with 3:58 to go and his second gave the Pack a 27-25 lead. He also had a dunk for a 22-20 Pack lead with 3:11 to go for its first lead since it was 3-0 Nevada three minutes into the game. Caroline also added a jumper for a 24-23 lead with 2:34 to go in the half.
It was Cody Martin, though, that kick started the Pack offense midway through the half. Cody, who finished with seven points on 3-of-10 shooting, scored six consecutive Wolf Pack points on three layups to cut the Akron lead to 12-9. Martin’s brother Caleb, who missed his first five shots and had two turnovers in the first 15 minutes of the half, caught fire in the final five minutes. Caleb had a pair of 3-pointers 36 second apart to cut Akron’s lead to 20-17 with 4:46 to play for his only points of the first half.
Caaleb would finish the game 7-of-18 from the floor overall and 4-of-11 on threes. He had been 6-of-32 on threes in his three previous games.
“It feels like my shot is coming along,” he said. “It’s starting to feel more comfortable.”
The Zips shot just 9-of-32 (28 percent) in the opening half and missed 9-of-14 3-pointers. The Pack was only slightly better overall, shooting 41 percent (11-of-27) but missing 11-of-15 threes.
The Wolf Pack outscored the Zips 8-4 over the first  five minutes of the second half to take a 37-29 lead. Caleb Martin connected on a layup and a jumper for a 32-27 lead 90 seconds into the half. Caroline drained a jumper, Trey Porter had a dunk off a feed from Tre’Shawn Thurman and Thurman had a free throw as the Pack took a 37-29 lead with 14:57 to play.
Akron, which only lost to then No. 16 Clemson 72-69 in a tournament in the Grand Caymen Islands on Nov. 19, kept the game close early in the second half. Channel Banks, a 6-4 guard from Las Vegas, hit a 3-pointer and Daniel Utomi had a pair of free throws to cut the Pack lead to just 37-34. Caroline and Porter also turned the ball over during the stretch as the Pack went scoreless for two-plus minutes.
Caleb Martin, though, completed a three-point play (off an assist from brother Cody) as the Pack moved out to a 40-34 lead with 12:28 to go. Jazz Johnson, who missed the Pack’s win over South Dakota State because of a concussion, connected on a 3-pointer (off an assist from Caleb Martin) for a 43-37 Pack lead with just under 12 minutes to play.
Caroline kept the Pack in the lead  over the next four minutes, scoring the next six Nevada points. He had a free throw for a 44-39 lead with 10:21 to play and then completed a three-point play off an assist from Thurman) to put the Pack up 47-39 with 10 minutes to go. Caroline’s two free throws also gave the Pack a 49-41 lead with 8:24 to play.
The Wolf Pack, just like in its previous game against South Dakota State, just could never pull away from the Zips. Johnson had a pair of free throws and a crucial 3-pointer with 5:42 to play but Banks hit a jumper and a 3-pointer, Deng Riak had a layup and Ivey connected on a jumper to cut the Pack’s lead to just 54-50 with 5:16 to play.
The Pack, as it did all game long, responded well. Thurman drained a pair of free throws with just under five minutes to play and Caleb Martin took a pass from Johnson and drained a 3-pointer for some breathing room and a 59-50 lead with 4:19 left in the game.
The Zips, now 0-3 against the Pack (the first two games were in 2005-06 and 2006-07), just wouldn’t go away. Tyler Cheese hit a 3-pointer and a layup and Jackson had a layup as Akron pulled to within 60-57 with 1:41 to play. It also didn’t help the Pack that Cody Martin missed a layup with 1:13 to go and Caroline did the same with 46 second left.
The Pack didn’t begin to breathe easier until Caleb Martin hit the biggest 3-pointer of the game for a 63-57 lead with 45 seconds to play.  Johnson also had a pair of free throws with 25 seconds to go (after a turnover by Riak) for a 65-57 Pack lead.
Ivey had a 3-pointer with 19 seconds to play and cheese hit a jumper with eight seconds left for Akron but Thurman’s two free throws with 17 seconds left and one by Cody Martin with eight seconds to go completed the scoring.
“It’s not going to be a Christmas of just sitting around and doing nothing,” said Musselman, who gave his players Sunday through Tuesday off. “Offensively, I have to figure out a way to help my team more. We’re regressing big-time on offense. I have to figure something out.”
The Wolf Pack, now 49-5 at home (38-2 over the last 40) and 27-0 at home against non-conference opponents since the start of the 2015-16 season under Musselman, will next play at Utah on Saturday. The Pack will open Mountain West play on Jan. 2 at Lawlor Events Center against Utah State.


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