Looking back on Pack’s 2016
Special to The R-C
It is rare when a calendar year leaves Nevada Wolf Pack fans drooling at the mouth and wanting more from all three of its most high profile sports on campus.
But all of the silver and blue stars aligned perfectly in 2016 for the Wolf Pack’s football, men’s basketball and baseball teams to leave Pack fans salivating in anticipation of what might come in 2017.
The men’s basketball team closed out the first year of the Eric Musselman era by winning the College Basketball Invitational in April, the baseball team under rookie coach T.J. Bruce won 37 games and got to the championship round of the Mountain West tournament in May and the football team finished the season by bringing the Fremont Cannon back to northern Nevada in November.
The last time the university’s big three sports all ended on such a hopeful and promising note in the same calendar year was 2010 when the men’s basketball team won 21 games and went to the second round of the National Invitation Tournament, the baseball team won 36 games and the football team capped off its best season in school history with 13 victories and a No. 11 national ranking.
The year 2016 is certainly one to remember for Pack fans.
The men’s basketball, baseball and football teams have combined to win 69 games since Jan. 1 with two games (men’s basketball at home against San Jose State tonight and at Fresno State on Friday at Lawlor Events Center) remaining before New year’s Day. The football team contributed five victories to that total of 69, the baseball team won 37 and the men’s basketball team has won 27 (16 from Jan. 1 through April 1 and 11 since Nov. 11).
The only other year since 1980 that the Pack men’s basketball, baseball and football teams have combined to win more games in one calendar year was 1992 when the three teams won 70. Just three other calendar years (2007, 2010 and 2012, each with 66) since 1980 produced as many as 65 victories by the big three sports combined.
Although 2016 didn’t produce a Mountain West conference title in any of the Wolf Pack’s three most high profile sports, we might someday refer to the past dozen months as the start of something special up on north Virginia Street.
A look back at the top five most important moments of 2016 for men’s basketball, football and baseball . . .
5. Baseball team gets within two victories of NCAA tournament.
Bruce’s first season as Wolf Pack baseball head coach had seemingly hit a wall last April 23. The Pack had just lost for the seventh time in its last nine games to fall to 17-20 on the year. Memories of the 41-victory 2015 season were quickly fading away.
The Pack season, though, was only just beginning.
The Pack would win its next 11 games in a row and 20 of its next 23 in one of the greatest turnarounds in school history. The streak began on April 24 as Cam Rowland turned in five crucial shutout innings of relief in an 8-4 win over Air Force. A four-game sweep at San Diego State from April 29-May 1 that featured an eye-opening one-hit, complete-game shutout by Trevor Charpie served notice that something special was indeed going on at Peccole Park.
The Wolf Pack, winners of 16 of their final 18 games in the regular season, arrived in Albuquerque for the Mountain West’s postseason party on May 25 as one of the hottest teams in the conference.
The Pack rolled over San Diego State in the opening round of the tournament but fell to New Mexico 3-0 in its second game as Lobos pitcher Colton Thompson held them to three hits. The Pack, knowing that one loss would end its season, then won three games in a row (against San Diego State, Fresno State and Air Force) to get to the championship round against the host Lobos.
The Wolf Pack now needed to beat the Lobos twice to earn its first NCAA tournament berth since 2000. The Pack, though, led New Mexico 4-3 in the fourth inning of the first game of the championship round before falling 14-4 and finishing its season at 37-24.
4. Musselman gets first signature victory over UNLV
It didn’t take long for Eric Musselman to restore excitement to the Wolf Pack men’s basketball team. A crowd of 11,341 showed up on the night of Jan. 23, 2016 – the fifth-largest Wolf Pack men’s basketball crowd in Lawlor Events Center’s history – to see Musselman and the Pack take on UNLV.
The atmosphere at Lawlor that night was reminiscent of the Pack’s NCAA tournament years from 2004-07. Musselman, who was handed a nine-win team in March 2015 when he replaced David Carter as coach, had already guided the Pack to 11 wins in their first 18 games.
UNLV led 49-40 after two Ben Carter free throws with 10:32 to go but a dunk by D.J. Fenner with 5:39 to play put the Pack on top 54-53 with 5:39 left. A free throw by Carter gave UNLV a 60-58 lead with 1:45 to go.
The Wolf Pack then won the game at the free throw line. The Pack’s final field goal of the game was a jumper by Fenner for a 56-55 lead with 4:30 to go. The last nine Pack points all came from the free throw line, thanks to Tyron Criswell (two), Lindsey Drew (3) and Marqueze Coleman (four). Coleman’s four free throws were the Pack’s final four points and all came in the final 19 seconds.
Musselman joined Mark Fox (Dec. 4, 2004), Sonny Allen (Dec. 10, 1981) and Jack Spencer (Jan. 22, 1962) as the only Pack coaches in history to win their first career game against UNLV.
3. Wolf Pack paints Fremont Cannon blue
James Butler almost literally put the 550-pound Fremont Cannon on his back and carried it back home to northern Nevada on Nov. 26.
The Wolf Pack’s junior running back, with a red Fremont Cannon looking on at Sam Boyd Stadium, simply devoured the UNLV Rebels in the final game of the regular season. Butler carried the ball 32 times for 196 yards and three touchdowns and also caught five passes for 48 yards and another score in one of the greatest performances by a Wolf Pack player in the nearly 50 years of the Silver State rivalry.
Butler scored on two 3-yard runs and one from 13 yards out. He also caught a 14-yard pass from quarterback Ty Gangi for another touchdown.
Gangi also had a memorable game in his first career start against UNLV, throwing for 193 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 99 yards and another touchdown.
The Wolf Pack thoroughly dominated the Rebels, piling up 511 yards of offense and controlling the ball for nearly 38 minutes.
“The Fremont Cannon is home where it belongs and we will work everyday to make sure it stays there for a long time,” Wolf Pack athletic director Doug Knuth said.
2. Brian Polian era ends and Jay Norvell era begins
The win over the Rebels would turn out to be Brian Polian’s parting gift to the Wolf Pack. The Wolf Pack athletic department announced that Polian was no longer head coach less than 24 hours after beating UNLV. Polian, who has since returned to Notre Dame as the Irish’s special teams coach, won 23 games in four seasons.
“I felt, and continue to feel, that we were building a solid foundation for this program,” Polian said.
It took the Pack just 12 days to announce Polian’s replacement.
Jay Norvell, a 53-year-old career assistant coach with three decades worth of experience, was announced on Dec. 9 as the Pack’s 26th head coach. Norvell has coached in 14 bowl games and has also been part of a team that went to the BCS Championship game (with Oklahoma in 2009) and the Super Bowl (with the Oakland Raiders in 2009).
Norvell, who has also coached at Nebraska, Arizona State, Wisconsin, UCLA, Iowa, Texas, Iowa state, Northern Iowa and the Indianapolis Colts, is easily the most experienced coach to ever take over the Pack football program.
“It’s our charge to make this the flagship program of the Mountain West,” Norvell said.
“He’s the surge this program needs,” former Pack coach Chris Ault said.
1. Wolf Pack wins national championship
OK, yes, it wasn’t the national tournament championship that captures the imagination of college basketball fans all over the country every March.
But the Wolf Pack’s 85-82 overtime victory at Lawlor Events Center over Morehead State to win the CBI is the school’s first national tournament title in school history.
A crowd of 9,043 filled Lawlor on the night of April 1 in the hope of witnessing history. The game looked like a runaway early as the Pack took a 26-12 lead on a 3-pointer by Fenner midway through the first half. A 3-pointer by Coleman also helped the Pack take a 41-34 halftime lead.
The Pack also led comfortably 51-38 after a jumper by Fenner with 16 minutes to play. The only thing left to decide, it seemed, was who would get the honor of cutting down the first strands of the net after the game.
Morehead State, though, had other ideas. A 17-3 run cut the Pack lead to just 55-54 and a 3-pointer by Morehead’s Lamontray Harris tied the game at 61-61 with eight minutes to go.
The two exhausted teams (the Pack had never played a game in the month of April before) found themselves in overtime, tied 75-75 with five more minutes to play.
Fenner gave the Pack a 78-75 lead with a 3-point play but Morehead led 82-80 after a layup by Lyonell Gaines with 1:55 to go. Morehead, though, would never score another point the rest of the game, missing its last five shots.
Morehead had the lead (82-80) and the ball with 1:06 to play but Miguel Dicent missed a jumper. Tyron Criswell grabbed the rebound and Lyonell Gaines fouled him two seconds later, sending criswell to the line.
Criswell made 1-of-2 free throws to cut Morehead’s lead to 82-81. The senior then converted a layup after a pass from teammate Lindsey Drew deflected to him off a Morehead State defender for an 83-82 Pack lead with 13 seconds to go.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Criswell said.
Fenner then put the game away with two more free throws with two seconds left.
“The first time we got together (in the spring) I didn’t know whether to cry or resign,” a happy Musselman said after the game. “If anybody would have told me at the end of the year we’d be standing here with a victory heading into the off-season I wouldn’t have believed them. I just think that’s what is happening here. Something is building.”
Right into 2017.