Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball puts on a show says Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team wanted to put on a show on Saturday afternoon.
“It was important to play well,” Wolf Pack Eric Musselman said. “When you get 10,000 fans in back to back games, we didn’t want to lose our fans. We want these people to come back to this building.”
The season’s biggest crowd at Lawlor Events Center (10,727) saw the basketball version of Nevada nirvana. The Pack, clinging to first place in the Mountain West, played one of its best overall games of the season, routing the New Mexico Lobos 82-65.
“I think anybody who came to this game is going to come back to another one,” Musselman said.
It wasn’t basketball perfection, if that even exists in Musselman’s demanding world, but it was close. The Pack converted more than half its shots (26-of-50), drained 11-of-23 3-pointers and clearly made a statement for the rest of the Mountain West to hear.
“We’re the team to beat now,” sophomore Cam Oliver said.
It’s hard to argue with that after what we saw on Saturday. New Mexico came to northern Nevada seeking revenge after the Pack embarrassed them in Albuquerque on Jan. 7, rallying from 25 down to win in overtime. It was the Wolf Pack, though, that played like it had something to prove.
“We feel like we lost that game (on Jan. 7),” Oliver said. “We wanted to make a statement to them that said, ‘We don’t need overtime to beat you guys.’”
“In our minds we did lose that game,” said senior Marcus Marshall of the 25-point comeback in Albuquerque earlier this month. “We were down 25. We were dead in the water. To come out here and win and not even make it close, that was huge.”
It’s the Lobos that are floating face down in the water now. No 25-point miracle comeback was needed on Saturday. The Pack toyed with the Lobos for 35 minutes and decided things with an 18-7 run over the final 5:46.
“The last two games we’ve played better basketball than we’ve played all year,” Musselman said.
That’s not a coincidence. Coming off two lackluster efforts last week at Lawlor (an 83-76 win over Air Force and an 81-76 loss to Fresno State), the Wolf Pack went to Boise and whipped the Broncos 76-57 on Wednesday. They then came back home on Saturday and proved that Wednesday in Boise, as well as Jan. 7 in Albuquerque, wasn’t a fluke.
“If we’re playing Nevada basketball I don’t think any team cam beat us,” Oliver said.
What, exactly, is Nevada basketball? Well, when Nevada basketball is at its best, it’s when Oliver is at his best. After two games against Air Force and Fresno State, when he had a combined 18 points and eight rebounds in 57 minutes, Oliver came to life this week. He had 26 points and eight boards in 38 minutes against New Mexico. Against Boise he had 17 points and 15 boards in 38 minutes.
That, too, is not a coincidence.
“We just told him, ‘Man, we need you to be successful,’” Marshall said. “We know what Cam is capable of doing. But he wasn’t playing to his fullest potential and not playing as hard as he can.”
Oliver, as we saw this week against Boise State and New Mexico, makes this Wolf Pack not only successful. He makes them special.
“I took a self check with myself,” Oliver said. “I know the team really depends on me. I knew I had to step up and play harder.”
Oliver helped separate the Pack from New Mexico, scoring 20 points in the second half. His 3-pointer gave the Pack a 67-58 lead with 5:46 to play and his jumper in the paint put the Pack up 75-60 with 3:35 left. It was Oliver’s 3-pointer 78 seconds into the second half got the Pack back on track after New Mexico pulled to within 37-36. He also had a dunk for a 53-45 lead with 12:19 to play and his 3-point play stretched the Pack lead to 63-54 with 7:48 remaining.
“When Cam plays like that,” sophomore Jordan Caroline said, “it opens everything up. Nobody in the game can guard him when he plays like that.”
Musselman said it best.
“When Cam dominates the game, we’re real hard to beat,” Musselman said.
In the Mountain West, they are unbeatable when Oliver plays to his potential.
“I’m hard on him because I believe in him,” Musselman said.
The Wolf Pack might not be able to play any better the rest of the year than it did on Saturday. And that is more than good enough to win the Mountain West regular season and postseason tournament titles. They shot well, got to the free throw line (19-of-27) and rebounded (32 boards). Marshall, the conference’s leading scorer (21.5 entering the game), had just 13 points but he also had a game-high eight assists. Lindsey Drew took just one shot, but he scored five points, had five assists, pulled down six boards and had three steals, keying a vintage Musselman-type defensive performance that helped hold the Lobos to 40 percent shooting from the floor and 22 percent (5-of-23) from beyond the arc.
“Our energy was phenomenal,” Musselman said.
And it was a controlled energy.
“There wasn’t a lot of yelling,” Musselman said. “Before the game at Boise and in this game (on Saturday) I wondered if the guys were ready. There were no smiles. No rah-rah. But someone told me, ‘Don’t worry. They are ready.’ Our guys had a very business-like approach.”
The Pack is definitely getting down to the business of winning the Mountain West for the first time in school history.
“This game shows we’re at the top to stay,” Caroline said.