RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack brought out the best in the Fresno State Bulldogs on Saturday night.
But it still wasn’t good enough to beat the No. 6 Wolf Pack.
“We knew they’d come out and play great,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said of the Bulldogs after Nevada’s 74-68 victory in front of a crowd of 11,019 at Lawlor Events Center. “We expected this type of game.”
The Wolf Pack outscored the Bulldogs 14-6 over the final 4:26 to improve to 25-2 overall and remain in first place in the Mountain West at 12-2. Fresno State, one of just two teams (UNLV is the other) to beat the Pack at Lawlor Events Center since the start of the 2016-17 season, fell to 19-8, 10-5.
“You could tell they really wanted it,” said Wolf Pack senior Caleb Martin, who scored a team-high 24 points. “They wanted to come into this environment here and play their best basketball. They are a talented team. They hit shots. But anytime you get a win you take it anyway you can.”
The Wolf Pack had to overcome a 30-point effort by Fresno’s Deshon Taylor, who made 11-of-19 shots overall and 5-of-7 threes. Taylor’s quickness baffled the Pack the entire game, with 16 points in the first half and 14 in the second half. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior also dished out eight assists.
“He got it going,” Caleb Martin said. “He’s a tough cover. He’s streaky.”
Taylor has now scored 79 points over his last three games and came within two points (32 against Cal Poly on Dec. 1) of his season high.
“Last year he hurt us, too,” said Musselman, recalling Taylor’s 32 points in a 102-92 Nevada win at Lawlor on Jan. 31, 2018. “He’s just a real quick guard. He just played phenomenal basketball.”
The Wolf Pack basically beat the Bulldogs at the free throw line. Fresno state had more field goals (26-21) and more 3-pointers (11-10) than the Pack but the Wolf Pack enjoyed a 22-5 advantage at the free throw line as Caleb Martin went 11-of-14 from the line.
The officials called 26 fouls on Fresno State and just 16 on the Wolf Pack. Two Bulldogs (Sam Bittner and Braxton Huggins) fouled out. No Pack player had more than three fouls.
“We were real aggressive to the rim,” Musselman said. “And we were more selective than we normally are on the three-ball.”
The Pack never really put the Bulldogs away until the final minute. A dunk by Tre’Shawn Thurman with 44 seconds to play a 70-65 lead with 44 seconds to go and finally allowed the crowd of 11,000-plus to breathe a little easier.
“I thought about passing it out and killing some clock,” said Thurman, who finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds off the bench for his second double-double in his last three games. “But I just took it. It was a great play. The energy was crazy in the building.”
The Wolf Pack scored the last four points of the first half to take a slim 42-39 halftime lead. A competitive first half saw the lead change eight times and also found the Bulldogs and Wolf Pack tied six times.
It was the Bulldogs, though that led for the bulk of the first nine minutes of the game. Fresno State took a quick 9-3 lead on 3-pointers by Bittner, Huggins and Taylor and led 12-6 three minutes into the game after a three-point play by Huggins.
Taylor, who scored 16 points in 18 first-half minutes, kept the Bulldogs in front with a 3-pointer (15-11) and a layup (17-13) five minutes into the game. Nate Grimes, who made 4-of-5 shots in the first half for nine points, gave the Bulldogs a 19-15 lead with 13 minutes to go in the half.
Grimes would finish with 16 points and 11 rebounds. “He’s very physical,” Thurman said of the 6-foot-8, 225-pound Bulldogs’ junior from Las Vegas. “He’s like a football player.”
The Wolf Pack then took control over the next four minutes, taking a 24-21 lead with nine minutes to go. Cody and Caleb Martin each drained 3-pointers about 90 seconds apart for the Pack’s first lead (21-19) since the opening minute of the game. Jordan Caroline, who had 17 points and five turnovers, hit a 3-pointer to put the Pack up 24-21. The 6-foot-7 senior also scored inside two minutes later for a 27-23 Pack lead.
Fresno State, though, as they did all night long, fought back to tie the game at 27-27 with seven minutes to go on a 3-pointer by Noah Blackwell and a free throw by Grimes. The Bulldogs then regained the lead (29-27) on a tip-in by Grimes with 6:40 to go.
Jazz Johnson, inserted into the starting lineup for the first time this season (for Thurman), responded with 3 3-pointers and nine points in the first half. Johnson played the entire 40 minutes despite scoring just one point in 20 second-half minutes.
“I didn’t know how many minutes I was going to play,” Johnson said. “But I do know that when I normally come in a game (off the bench), coach usually doesn’t take me out. Tonight I started and didn’t come out.”
Johnson, a 5-10 junior, hit a three to cut Fresno’s lead to 12-9 in the first three minutes of the game and then connected again for a 30-29 Pack lead with six minutes to go and a 35-33 lead with four minutes to go.
The Bulldogs, though, tied the game at 35-35 as Taylor attacked the interior of the Pack defense. The senior guard, who took 19 of the Bulldogs’ 58 shots and scored nearly half (30 of 68) their points, scored off the glass twice to give Fresno a 33-30 lead with just over five minutes to go in the half. Taylor also scored to tie the game at 35-35 with just under four minutes left.
Fresno State also took a 38-37 lead with two minutes to go in the half on a dunk by Grimes and a pair of free throws by Taylor. But the Pack kept Fresno State off the scoreboard in the final two minutes as Caleb Martin had a pair of free throws with 1:14 to go and Thurman had a lay-up with 11 seconds left for a 42-39 Pack lead at the break.
The Wolf Pack’s halftime lead, though, lasted all of 28 seconds as Fresno’s Huggins connected on a 3-pointer to tie the game at 42-42. The Bulldogs then regained the lead at 45-44 on a free throw by Taylor with 18:14 to play. A dunk by Grimes, off a feed from Taylor, put the Bulldogs up 47-45 with 16:13 to go.
The Wolf Pack, which has now won 16 games in a row at home and 40-of-42 since the start of the 2016-17 season, seemed to find new energy after a media timeout with 15:24 to go. The Pack then went on a 7-0 run to take a 52-47 lead with 12:50 to go. The seven points came, in order, on a Caleb Martin free throw, two free throws by Thurman, an offensive rebound and a lay-up by Cody Martin and a lay-up by Caroline off a pass from Thurman.
The Pack, though, couldn’t pull away just yet. A 3-pointer by Bittner with just under 11 minutes to go revived the Bulldogs and sent them on an 8-0 run that took just two minutes. Bittner’s three was followed by another three by Taylor and a layup by Grimes for a 55-52 Fresno lead with 8:48 to go. Taylor also gave Fresno State leads of 58-56 on a 3-pointer with six minutes to go and 62-60 on a jumper with 4:34 left.
The Wolf Pack, though, owned the rest of the game. An 8-0 run began with a pair of game-tying (62-62) free throws by Caleb Martin with 4:26 to go. Cody Martin then stole the ball from Taylor, leading to a 3-pointer by his brother Caleb and a 65-62 Wolf Pack lead with four minutes to go.
Thurman, who had started 22 of the Pack’s first 26 games this year before Saturday, then turned in the most important rebound of the night. The 6-8 senior pulled down an offensive rebound off a missed 3-pointer by Caroline and converted it into a three-point play and a 68-62 Pack lead with 2:23 to play.
Taylor, though, made things interesting with his fifth 3-pointer and his 30th point of the night, cutting the Pack lead to just 68-65 with 1:11 to go. A Thurman dunk with 44 seconds to go and a free throw by Caroline for a 71-65 lead allowed the Pack to breathe easier in the final minute.
Grimes did drain a 3-pointer with 13 seconds left to cut the Pack lead to 71-68 but a free throw by Caleb Martin with nine seconds to go helped keep it a two-possession game. Martin also removed all the drama from the game with a pair of free throws with three seconds to go.
The victory allowed the Wolf Pack, which lost at San Diego State 66-57 on Wednesday, to avoid its first losing streak since December 2017. The Pack is now 26-3 after a loss in the Musselman era (two other losses came in the season’s final game). The Pack’s 25-2 start to the season also equals the best start after 27 games in school history along with the 2006-07 team.
“Every night is a grind,” Musselman said.
The Wolf Pack has now beaten Fresno State five games in a row, including twice this season. The Pack won in Fresno 73-64 on Jan. 12.
“We’re tired,” Musselman said. “I’m tired. We have a tired group right now.”