Basketball: Wolf Pack tops Fresno State
How confident is the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team right now?
Well, Malik Story started doing jumping jacks in the middle of the court Saturday night with just under five minutes to play.
“I just wanted to get the crowd into it a little,” smiled the junior Wolf Pack guard.
The season’s largest crowd of 7,016 fans saw the Wolf Pack race past the Fresno State Bulldogs 74-61 on Saturday night at Lawlor Events Center for their 13th victory in a row.
“The crowd was great tonight,” senior Dario Hunt said. “We fed off that.”
The northern Nevada community is also feeding off the hottest team in college basketball west of the Mississippi right now. The Wolf Pack, winners of 16 of their last 17 games to improve to 16-3 overall and 5-0 in the Western Athletic Conference, owns the second longest winning streak in the nation behind Murray State (20 games in a row).
“The feeling in our locker room this year is a lot different than last year,” said Hunt, who had 13 points and 11 rebounds against the Bulldogs. “Winning is always a good feeling.”
Fresno State (9-12, 1-4) was feeling pretty good about itself early in the first half, taking a 15-4 lead seven minutes into the game.
“They spread us out a little in the first half and we let them get some easy baskets,” Hunt said.
Fresno point guard Steven Shepp had a pair of lay-ups and Tyler Johnson hit a 3-pointer and a short jumper to key the Bulldogs’ 11-point lead. Kevin Olekaibe, the second-leading scorer in the WAC at 18.4 points a game, also had a 3-pointer for an 18-8 Fresno State lead.
“They were running their sets real well and we were chasing them around a little bit,” said Pack point guard Deonte Burton, who had 18 points and six assists.
Fresno held its first-half lead until the Pack’s Olek Czyz hit a jumper to tie the game at 18-18 with 7:47 left. The game was tied seven times in the first half until a jumper by Story gave the Pack a 32-30 advantage at the break.
“The game was played at (Fresno State’s) tempo for the first 25 minutes or so,” Pack coach David Carter said. “I was a little frustrated in the first half. Fresno is a small team and we knew they were going to pressure us and we made some lazy passes early in the game.”
The Bulldogs, who had just nine players, took a 39-38 lead on a jumper by Jerry Brown with 13:38 to play in the second half. The Pack took a 36-33 lead and then went the next four-plus minutes and scored just two points.
“When we started to lock down on them defensively, that’s when we pulled away,” said Hunt, who blocked three shots.
The Wolf Pack outscored the out-manned Bulldogs 25-9 over a stretch of 8:39 to take a commanding 63-48 lead with 4:29 to go. Story kick-started the Pack outburst with a 3-pointer for a 42-39 lead. Backup point guard Jordan Finn also had a 3-pointer for a 47-40 lead, Hunt and Czyz had dunks and Hunt, Story and Czyz had lay-ups as the Pack wore down the Bulldogs in the second half.
“I think we did a little,” Carter said. “They seemed to get a little tired in the second half. Some of their shots were short. We wore them down a little.”
The Bulldogs made just seven of their final 24 shots.
“I didn’t notice them getting tired,” Burton said. “They were still running their stuff and playing hard.”
They just weren’t getting the same results.
The Bulldogs played just seven players against the Pack despite two of their starters — Tyler and Jonathan Wills — fouling out. Olekaibe and Shepp each played 39 minutes and the two Fresno State guards were just a combined 7-of-25 from the floor (3-of-12 from 3-point range).
“We just wanted to make sure that someone was always there when he caught the ball,” said Carter of Olekaibe.
Olekaibe, from Cimarron-Memorial High School in Las Vegas, scored just 13 points on 4-of-17 shooting.
“We wanted to force him into bad shots,” Carter said. “But every time he made one I always got a little nervous because he’s the kind of guy who can get hot in a hurry.”
It was the Wolf Pack who seemed to get hot in a hurry in the second half, turning a close game into an opportunity to do jumping jacks with 4:41 to play with a 13-point (61-48) lead.
The Pack hit 11-of-15 shots during its game-changing 25-9 run while Fresno was just 3-of-12.
“They are a small team so they took a lot of jump shots,” Burton said. “We were able to get those rebounds and push it up the floor for easy shots.”
The Wolf Pack, now 11-1 at home this season, will head to New Mexico State on Thursday and Louisiana Tech on Saturday. The Pack, which has just five home games left this season, doesn’t return to Lawlor until Feb. 2 against Utah State.