Pack loss to Rebels a disappointment | RecordCourier.com

Pack loss to Rebels a disappointment

Joe Santoro

Sports fodder for a Friday morning . . .

The Nevada Wolf Pack's 86-78 loss to the UNLV Rebels on Wednesday night is the program's most disappointing and meaningful loss in the coach Eric Musselman era. None of Musselman's other 25 losses at Nevada even comes close to the heartbreak the Rebels handed the Pack. First of all, it was to the Rebels. Any loss to the Rebels, a team the Pack beat last year twice by an average of 31 points, is a punch to the Pack gut. It broke the Pack's 16-game home winning streak. It ruined the Pack's chances of its first perfect home season since 2003-04. The loss took place in front of the eighth largest crowd (11,285) in Lawlor Events Center history. It knocked the Pack (20-5, 9-2) into second place in the Mountain West behind Boise State (20-4, 10-2). The Rebels stole a little bit of the Pack's confidence and swagger on Wednesday.

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You could argue that the loss to the Rebels is the Pack's most disappointing loss since an 80-79 loss to New Mexico State in the Western Athletic Conference tournament semifinals at Lawlor Events Center in David Carter's first year as head coach in 2009-10. That Pack team had Luke Babbitt, Armon Johnson, Dario Hunt, Brandon Fields and Joey Shaw, had already won 20 games and was just two victories away from the NCAA tournament. It had only lost one game at home all year before the stunning loss to New Mexico State. The New Mexico State coach in that game was Marvin Menzies, the Rebels' coach on Wednesday.

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The loss on Wednesday is the Pack's most disappointing loss to the Rebels since Dec. 9, 2006. The Rebels won at Lawlor Events Center that night in front of 11,368 fans in an ugly 58-49 game that saw the Pack miss 14 of its 15 3-point shots and 65 per cent of its shots overall. Nick Fazekas, with 17 points, was the only Pack player in double figure scoring. Marcellus Kemp was 1-of-11 from the floor. The Pack had won its last three games against UNLV. It came into the game with a 7-0 record and ranked 20th in the nation. This year's Pack team, though, can learn a valuable lesson from that December 2006 game. That 2006-07 Pack team didn't let the loss to UNLV ruin its season or even deflate its confidence. That Pack team won its next 10 games and 19 of its next 20 and ended up winning a game in the NCAA tournament.

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Musselman has never been more upset with his Wolf Pack players as he was Wednesday night. He questioned their toughness. He questioned whether or not they were even capable of playing sound defense. He wondered if they could even recover enough to finish in the top five of the Mountain West and get a bye out of the first round of the Mountain West tournament. This is a side of Musselman that we haven't seen before at Lawlor Events Center, where he had a record of 40-4 before Wednesday. Musselman never wants to lose any game. He especially doesn't want to lose any game at home. Musselman will never get the taste of losing in front of 11,285 home fans to the school's biggest rival out of his mouth as long as he coaches at Nevada. He knows how much the rivalry with UNLV means to Wolf Pack fans. Nobody in the arena was hurt by the loss to UNLV more than Musselman. You can be sure that the rest of this season is going to be a basketball boot camp for this Wolf Pack team.

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The good news is that the loss to the Rebels does not destroy anything that the Wolf Pack wants to achieve this year except a perfect home season. The Pack is still in the race for a Mountain West regular season title that will likely be decided Feb. 14 at Boise State. The Pack will almost certainly get a first-round bye in the Mountain West tournament. The Wolf Pack, even if it falls short in the Mountain West tournament, is still in great position to get an at large spot in the NCAA tournament. ESPN's Joe Lunardi had the Pack as a No. 8 seed, even after the loss to UNLV.

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Musselman said Wednesday that no Pack player stepped up enough to help overcome the loss of leading scorer Caleb Martin, who missed the game with a foot injury. That was just Muss being Muss. Jordan Caroline played a wonderful game, scoring 18 points and physically abusing UNLV 7-foot freshman center Brandon McCoy (eight points, three turnovers) at both ends of the floor. Cody Martin had one of his best games as a Pack player, scoring 16 points with five assists and three steals. Lindsey Drew stepped out of character to toss up 15 shots and finished with 17 points, three assists and eight rebounds. Kendall Stephens hit three 3-ponters and was 7-of-7 from the free throw line for 16 points. He also blocked two shots. Hallice Cooke came off the bench to contribute seven points. Josh Hall had four points, four boards and two steals. They all stepped up in Caleb Martin's absence. The Pack lost this game simply because UNLV's Jovan Mooring played the game of his life (31 points) and turned in one of the most impressive and gutsy performances by a Wolf Pack opponent in Lawlor Events Center history.

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The next time The Associated Press or the USA Today Coaches poll puts the Wolf Pack in its Top 25 rankings the Pack should say "thanks but no thanks." The Wolf Pack is now 0-4 when ranked this season. When it is not ranked the Pack is 20-1. If the Pack, now ranked No. 23, loses on Saturday at home to San Diego State, a team that is currently just 13-9 overall and 5-6 in league play, well, then there is something to this Top 25 jinx. If the Pack is not ranked heading into the NCAA tournament, it just might end up as national champions.

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We witnessed on Wednesday why Rebels-Wolf Pack in men's basketball is the greatest rivalry in the Mountain West for any sport. UNLV-Nevada in football is almost always a one-sided affair. One or both of the teams is usually awful and one or both of the head coaches is always about to be fired or should be fired. On Wednesday we saw why UNLV-Nevada in men's basketball is one of the most underrated rivalries in the nation. The fans fill the arena and line up hours before the game to get in. The players play like every dribble is meaningful. Players make plays they wouldn't even attempt in other games. The coaches are exhausted mentally after the game. That game on Wednesday night, whether you like the outcome or not, will be remembered for decades.