Eric Musselman wasn’t in the mood to celebrate the latest Nevada Wolf Pack victory Saturday night.
“I guess there’s growth in our program,” said Musselman after a 67-52 Wolf Pack victory over the Air Force Falcons at Lawlor Events Center. “We win a game by 15 and I’m not happy at all. That’s growth, I guess.”
The No. 10 Wolf Pack (18-1, 5-1) struggled on offense against the Falcons (7-11, 2-4), making the home crowd of 11,222 uncomfortable for much of the night. The Pack made just 5-of-27 3-point shots and scored under 70 points for just the third time this season.
“We settled for too many threes,” Musselman said. “We have to start taking less threes if we are going to shoot them this way. We can’t just keep trying to shoot ourselves out of it.”
The Wolf Pack did shoot itself out of its scoring slump in the final 16 minutes, outscoring the Falcons 42-21. The Pack was a sizzling 16-of-29 (.552) in the second half from the floor to finish at .421 (24-of-57) for the game.
“We just wanted to come out and attack the rim,” said senior center Trey Porter, who finished with 11 points in 19 productive minutes.
The first 24 minutes, though, were a different story for the Pack.
The Wolf Pack fell behind 24-20 at halftime for its worst offensive first half in the Musselman era. The 20 points is the fewest for the Pack in the first half since it scored 17 in the first half of an eventual 67-46 loss at UNLV on March 11, 2015, the final game of David Carter’s six-year career as head coach.
“We just really weren’t playing our game,” said senior forward Jordan Caroline, who finished with a game-high 19 points. “It was on us. We were kind of passive.”
“They (Air Force) really didn’t do anything,” senior Caleb Martin said. “We were just missing shots.”
The Wolf Pack missed 12 of its 13 3-point shots in the opening half and was just 8-of-28 (29 percent) from the floor overall. The Pack also was just 3-of-8 from the free throw line.
“I thought we were lethargic,” Musselman said. “We weren’t excited to play at all for some reason. I don’t know why.”
Air Force’s offense struggled almost as much as the Wolf Pack’s offense in the first half. The Falcons made just 4-of-15 3-pointers and 10-of-28 (36 percent) shots overall in the first 20 minutes. The Falcons also didn’t even get to the free throw line once and were just 8-of-9 for the game from the line.
“I think we’re a great defensive team,” Musselman said.
The Wolf Pack held Air Force to 52 points on Saturday, just three days after the Falcons beat UNLV 106-88 in Colorado Springs. The 52 points is the second fewest the Wolf Pack has allowed in the Musselman era, after a 72-49 victory over Utah State earlier this month.
“Our intensity on defense tonight was through the roof,” said Caleb Martin, who continued to struggle with his shot (4-of-15 from the floor) and finished with 10 points. “That (defense) is what’s winning games for us right now.”
Air Force led 5-0 after the first minute and 24-18 after a 3-pointer by Chris Joyce with just under a minute to play in the half.
“We have great shooters,” Caleb Martin said. “We just have to figure out a way to make it go in.”
It took the Pack offense the entire first half as well as the first four minutes in the second half to finally figure it out.
Down 31-25 with 16 minutes to play, the Wolf Pack offense that averaged over 90 points a game over the first month of the season, finally showed up.
Caroline connected on a 3-pointer to jumpstart the Pack offense with 16 minutes to go in the half, cutting Air Force’s lead to 31-28. Cody Martin followed with a dunk 16 seconds later to cut the deficit to a point.
Jazz Johnson’s lone 3-pointer of the game (on eight attempts) tied the game at 33-33 and Caleb Martin gave the Pack its first lead (35-33) since the first six minutes of the game (8-7) with a layup off a pass from Johnson.
The Wolf Pack simply ran the Falcons out of the gym over the final dozen minutes of the game. Trailing 37-35, the Wolf Pack then went inside for its offense, the lead and the victory.
Caroline hit two free throws to tie the game at 37-37. Porter was fouled under the basket and converted a 3-point play for a 40-37 Pack lead and followed that 19 seconds later with another dunk and a 42-37 Pack lead with 10:04 to go.
“He brings a lot of energy,” Caleb Martin said of Porter. “The crowd loves a dunk. He’s a big energy guy, a big momentum guy.”
Caroline and Porter each hit a pair of free throws for a 46-37 lead and Caroline jammed home a dunk for a 48-37 lead with 7:49, completing a game-changing 13-0 run. The Wolf Pack simply dominated the final dozen minutes of the game, outscoring the Falcons 32-15.
“Our goal as basketball players is to put together a good 40 minutes,” Porter said. “We obviously did not do that tonight. We expect more out of ourselves.”
The victory gives the Wolf Pack the best start (18-1) after 19 games in school history, a game better than the 1951-52 and 2006-07 Wolf Pack, which both started the season 17-2.
The Pack now has also won a dozen games in a row at home, dating back to last season. Musselman’s career record at Nevada is now 99-30, leaving him just one victory away from joining Jake Lawler (204), Doc Martie (129), Mark Fox (123) and Jack Spencer (123) as the only coaches in Nevada history with 100 or more victories.
“This one was a tale of two halves,” Musselman said. “Air Force was phenomenal in the first half. They controlled the pace of the game. Our offense wasn’t where it needs to be.”
Musselman will get a chance for his 100th career victory on Wednesday night (8 p.m.) when the Pack hosts Colorado State at Lawlor Events Center.