RENO — It didn’t take Jalen Harris long to show what he means to the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team.
Harris, who suffered a foot injury and played just eight minutes over the first two games of the season last week, returned to the lineup Tuesday night with a team-high 24 points and nine rebounds in an 80-73 victory over the Texas-Arlington Mavericks at Lawlor Events Center.
“As you can see he’s a pretty big key for us,” said Steve Alford, now 2-1 in his first year as Wolf Pack coach.
A crowd of 7,504 saw Harris score nearly half his points (11) from the free throw line, all in the second half. The 6-foot-5 junior had 20 points in 17 second-half minutes.
“It was huge having him back,” Alford said. “He got to the free throw line 14 times. He did a lot of good things for us.”
Harris had just four points in eight minutes in the first half without a single trip to the line as Alford kept him on the bench with two fouls.
“It was just good to get to play with my teammates again,” said Harris, who injured his foot in a 79-74 loss to Utah last Tuesday and then missed all of the Pack’s 72-67 victory over Loyola Marymount on Saturday. “It (his foot) was good enough to get me through the game.”
The Wolf Pack, which made 10-of-21 3-pointers against UTA after making just 18-of-60 over its first two games, shot 47 percent (27-of-58) from the floor. The Pack also got 16 points each from seniors Jazz Johnson and Nisre Zouzoua, who each made three 3-pointers and combined to shoot 11-of-19 from the floor overall.
“Coach preaches to us all the time about playing together and moving the ball and staying aggressive and attacking the basket and that’s what we did,” Zouzoua, who now has 34 points this season in three games after scoring just 27 points all last season in 21 games.
“I was proud of the guys for winning a game when we shot just 16-of-30 from the free throw line and also turned the ball over 16 times,” Alford said. “That shows we did a lot of other things well, to shoot that poorly from the line and turn the ball over that much and still beat a good team. So we had some growth.”
Texas-Arlington, which allowed just 50 points to UT Dallas and 59 to Tulsa in two season-opening wins, fell to 2-1.
“We knew this was going to be a hard matchup for us because they really don’t have a center,” Alford said. “So we went with four guards in the second half and it paid off.”
Harris, who also had two steals, was the difference.
“He is without question one of our most explosive players,” Alford said. “He gets downhill quickly, fast and explosively.”
The game against Texas-Arlington was special for Harris, a Dallas native.
“It was a big-time win,” Harris said. “That’s where I’m from. I know a lot of those players and that coaching staff. They are a disciplined team that plays hard. It’s a good feeling.”
The Wolf Pack took a 38-35 lead at halftime as Johnson and Zouzoua combined for 23 points on five 3-pointers. The two guards also combined to shoot 8-of-12 from the floor and score the Pack’s final nine points of the half.
Johnson, who had 13 points in the first half and three after halftime, hit his first 3-pointer for a 5-0 Pack lead less than two minutes into the game. His second three put the Pack up 17-16 with just under 12 minutes to go in the half and his third 3-pointer gave the Pack a 32-22 lead with just over two minutes to go.
Zouzoua, who had 10 points in the first half after scoring nine points in each of the first two games of the season against Utah and Loyola Marymount, connected from the left elbow for three points and a 21-19 lead with 9:22 left in the half. He also drained a three from the right elbow for a 36-27 lead with just over a minute left in the half.
The Pack built a 9-1 lead three minutes into the game but Texas-Arlington responded with a 10-0 run to take an 11-9 lead just three minutes later.
The Wolf Pack, though, then dominated the next 11 minutes. The Pack at one point held UTA to just three points over a 10-minute stretch.
“I think we got 10 stops in a row at one point,” Alford said. “We had a lot of key plays and a lot of those key plays were on defense.”
The Pack’s 15-3 run came on the strength of 3-pointers by Zouzoua, Johnson and Zane Meeks. Robby Robinson also had a layup off a feed from Lindsey Drew during the run as the Pack took a 32-22 lead. Robinson finished with eight points and eight rebounds in 26 minutes.
“I thought Robby Robinson really busted his tail and did a lot of good things for us,” Alford said of his 6-foot-8 sophomore.
It took Texas-Arlington, though, less than two minutes into the second half to erase the Pack’s 38-35 halftime lead. Jabari Narcis hit a pair of threes 33 seconds part to give the Mavericks a 41-40 lead with 18:41 to play.
Lindsey Drew, who scored 54 points in the Pack’s first two games combined, then returned to the Pack offense. Drew, who went scoreless over 14 first-half minutes on 0-for-4 shooting, converted a pair of layups a minute apart to give the Pack a 44-43 lead with 15:37 to go. Drew, who finished with seven points, four assists, three steals and two blocks, also fed freshman K.J. Hymes for a dunk and a 46-43 lead with 15:18 to play.
Johnson’s first two points of the second half gave the Pack a 51-45 lead with just under 13 minutes to play. Harris’ first 3-pointer of the season gave the Pack a 55-48 lead with 11 minutes to go.
Robinson connected on a pair of jumpers about a minute apart as the Pack took a 62-53 lead with just under nine minutes to play. Drew also connected on his first 3-pointer of the game in between Robinson’s two jumpers for a 60-51 lead with 9:39 to go.
The Pack led the Mavericks over the final 15:37 but Nevada didn’t truly secure the victory until the final minute.
Zouzoua hit a 3-pointer for a 75-67 lead with 3:18 to play but the Mavericks earlier cut the Pack lead to just three points twice on a pair of free throws each by Narcis (66-63 with 5:20 to go) and David Azore (68-65 with 4:53 left. UTA also sliced the Pack lead to just five points three different times on a Coleman Sparling layup (62-57 with 8:21 to go), a Brian Warren 3-pointer (66-61 with 5:38 left) and a Patrick Mwamba jumper (72-67 with 3:43 to play).
Drew and Robinson combined to miss three free throws in the final 40 seconds as the Pack led just 77-73 with 34 seconds to play. But a pair of free throws by Harris with 30 seconds left and one by Johnson with 14 seconds to go finally put the game away as UTA missed a pair of threes, turned the ball over twice and committed three fouls in the final 34 seconds.
The Wolf Pack will host USC this Saturday night (8 p.m.) at Lawlor Events Center to conclude its season-opening four-game homestand. The USC game will be the Pack’s final home game until Santa Clara comes to Lawlor on Dec. 4.