Pack shoot down Montana
Special to The R-C
Don’t tell the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team that it can’t shoot.
“When we look at the numbers we know sometimes it doesn’t look good,” junior guard D.J. Fenner said. “But at the same time we’re competitors. We know the shots are going to start dropping eventually.”
That time came in the second half Wednesday night against the Montana Grizzlies. The Wolf Pack made seven 3-pointers and shot 58 percent after halftime to beat the Grizzlies 79-75 in a first-round College Basketball Invitational game in front of 4,524 fans at Lawlor Events Center in Reno.
“We can shoot,” smiled freshman Cam Oliver. “We know if we put in the extra work we can make shots.”
The Wolf Pack, now 20-13, will host Eastern Washington (18-15) on Monday night (7 p.m.) at Lawlor Events Center in the second round of the 16-team CBI. Eastern Washington, from the Big Sky Conference like Montana, beat Pepperdine 79-72 on Wednesday.
“Early in the game we struggled with energy,” Pack coach Eric Musselman said, referring to Montana’s 37-27 halftime lead. “But if we weren’t playing in this tournament our guys would be in study hall right now. Anytime you get to play in front of people who pay to watch you play, it’s an honor. Our guys see the importance of this tournament now.”
The Pack also reminded themselves of the importance of making shots. The Wolf Pack were 15-of-26 from the floor in the second half overall and 7-of-11 on 3-pointers. Fenner, who was 4-of-24 in two games from the floor in the Mountain West tournament last week, had four of the 3-pointers and finished with a game-high 24 points. Drew, who was 2-of-15 on 3-pointers over the previous nine games, was 2-of-3 beyond the arc against the Grizzlies and scored a career-high 16 points.
“Coach just wanted me to make plays,” Drew said. “When I’m in my comfort zone like that, I know I can make shots.”
The Wolf Pack, though, still trailed the Grizzlies 48-36 after a Martin Breunig jumper with 15:30 to play. A 3-pointer by Fenner with 15:03 to go seemed to ignite the Pack’s confidence.
“They had us on the ropes,” Musselman said. “We knew that the only way we were going to manufacture a win was to knock down shots.”
Fenner hit another 3-pointer less than a minute later to cut the Montana lead to 48-42 with 14:25 to go. A layup by Tyron Criswell pulled the Pack to within 48-44 with 13:55 to play.
“I’m not sure what the difference was,” Fenner said about the difference between Wednesday and the Mountain West tournament. “Things just seemed slower and they seemed easier for me in this game.”
Fenner took just one 3-point attempt in the first half and missed.
“After the Mountain West tournament I was a little upset at my jump shot,” Fenner said.
Fenner was 5-of-9 from the floor overall and 4-of-7 on 3-pointers against Montana in the second half for 16 points.
“I told D.J. before this game that he had to be as good as anybody in this tournament,” Musselman said. “He let the game come to him tonight.”
Fenner’s third 3-pointer cut Montana’s lead to just 54-53 with 10:28 to go and his fourth 3-pointer tied the game at 56-56 a minute later.
“When D.J. plays like that we are a much different team,” Musselman said.
Breunig, who had 20 points, hit a short jumper for a 59-56 Montana lead with just under eight minutes to play. Breunig also converted a shot in the paint for a 63-57 Montana lead with 5:45 left.
The Pack then went on a 10-3 lead to take its first lead (67-66) of the game. Layups by Drew and Criswell and four free throws by Oliver cut Montana’s lead to just 66-65 with 3:09 to play. A jumper by Drew gave the Pack its 67-66 lead with 2:28 left. Drew also nailed a 3-pointer for a 70-68 lead with 1:35 to go.
“They put their center (Breunig) on him,” Musselman said. “So we just isolated Lindsey on him and got (Breunig) on his heels.”
Drew made the Grizzlies pay with just his third double-digit scoring game of his freshman year. He scored more points on Wednesday (16) than he had in his previous four games combined (15).
“When we shoot 50 percent on threes I don’t see any way we can be stopped,” said Drew, referring to the Pack’s 8-of-16 performance on threes against Montana.
It was a 3-pointer by Eric Cooper from the right corner that all but put the game way, giving the Pack a 75-70 lead with just 37 seconds to go. Drew and Cooper also combined for four free throws in the final 28 seconds to secure the Pack’s first postseason tournament victory since it beat Bucknell 75-67 in the NIT at Lawlor on March 18, 2012.
Montana, which lost to Weber State in the Big Sky Conference tournament championship game last week in Reno, saw its season end with a 21-12 record. The Grizzlies built their 37-27 halftime lead on the shooting of Jack Lopez (five 3-pointers and 17 points), Mario Dunn (two threes and eight points) and Breunig (4-of-6 from the floor for eight points). The Pack, though, held Lopez to just three points and Dunn to two points in the second half.
The Pack, however, didn’t win this game with defense. The Grizzlies actually shot even better in the second half (56 percent) than they did in the first half (47 percent) and finished at 51 per cent (29-of-57) for the game. The difference was that the Pack was 23-of-26 from the free throw line overall to the Grizzlies’ 5-of-6.
“We had unbelievable free throw shooting,” Musselman said.
The accuracy from the line translated to other parts of the offense in the second half.
“The second half was the best offense we’ve played all year,” said Musselman, who became the third straight Pack coach (after Mark Fox and David Carter) to win 20 or more games in his first year at the school.
The Wolf Pack, Fenner said, weren’t all that excited about playing in the CBI heading into Wednesday night. That has all changed now, he said.
“At first it was difficult for us to get going because we were still upset about the Mountain West tournament,” Fenner said. “But now we want to go ahead and win this whole thing.”