Wolf Pack face Eagles in best-of-three series
The way Eric Musselman sees it, the Morehead State Eagles desperately need to beat the Nevada Wolf Pack Monday night in Kentucky in the first game of the College Basketball Invitational championship series.
“That first game is real critical for them,” the Wolf Pack coach said of the opener of the best-of-three title series.
Consider the pressure clearly on the Eagles (22-12) of the Ohio Valley Conference in Morehead, Ky. (ESPNU, 5:30 p.m.). The Wolf Pack, after all, will have the comfort of knowing that Games 2 and 3 (if necessary) will be Wednesday and Friday at Lawlor Events Center in Reno.
“The home team can ill afford to lose Game 1 because then they have to go on the road and win twice,” said Musselman, who has guided the Wolf Pack to a 22-13 record in his first season as coach.
The home team has lost the first game in the previous eight CBI championship series just once. Fresno State lost at home in the opener of the 2014 title series to Siena and eventually lost the series. The home team has a record of 16-6 in the previous eight CBI title series.
“Having those two home games waiting for us does ease the pressure on us a little bit in that first game on the road,” junior guard D.J. Fenner said.
The road team has won just three of the previous 14 CBI games this year and Morehead State has two of those road wins. The Eagles won at Siena (84-80) in Albany, N.Y. and at Ohio (77-72).
The Wolf Pack are 14-3 at home this year including CBI wins over Montana (79-75), Eastern Washington (85-70) and Vermont (86-72).
Morehead State, Musselman said, is clearly the best team the Pack have faced in the CBI this year. The Eagles were 11-5 in the Ohio Valley Conference and have won 10 of their last 11 games overall and have gone 16-5 since early January.
“Morehead State, no doubt, is the most athletic team we’ve seen in the tournament,” Muselman said. “The other three teams we’ve played were all kind of similar in that they were good three-point shooting teams that weren’t as athletic or physical. But Morehead State is as athletic as any team we’ve played all season long. And they attack the rim and can shoot the three.”
“This series will come down to who is the tougher team,” Wolf Pack senior point guard Marqueze Coleman said.
The Eagles’ 6-foot-2 guard Xavier Moon is averaging 10.5 points a game and is shooting 43 percent beyond the arc. Corban Collins, a 6-3 guard, averages 11.7 points and is shooting 44 percent on threes. Lyonell Gaines (6-6) averages 6.1 points and 3.8 rebounds but had 14 points and 13 boards against Ohio, including five offensive rebounds. Gaines also had six offensive rebounds in an 82-72 win over Duquesne in the CBI’s second round.
The Wolf Pack managed to wear down Montana, Eastern Washington and Vermont in the second half, especially on defense, but that might be more difficult to do against Morehead State. The Eagles have 11 players that average nine or more minutes a game. Just seven Pack players average nine or more minutes a game.
“Their depth is a huge advantage for them,” Musselman said. “That’s a big concern for us because we might have to play three games in five days next week.”
Two more wins will give the Pack the school’s first postseason national tournament championship. And the celebration could take place in front of its fellow students on its own home court, a rare opportunity in Division I college sports. The NCAA tournament and NIT, for example, play their championship games at a neutral site.
“That is amazing to think about,” said Fenner of the chance to win a championship at Lawlor. “But it’s not going to be easy.”
Coleman played 29 minutes against Vermont and had 20 points and three assists. It was his most playing time and production by far since injuring his left ankle on Feb. 24 against Utah State.
“I can’t think of a better way to end my career here than to win a championship,” Coleman said. “Anytime you can play for a championship it’s an honor for us as athletes and for the university.”