Wolf Pack knock off Aztecs
RENO — One thing the Nevada basketball program has shown during the brief Eric Musselman era is resiliency.
Only twice in 53 previous games has the Pack lost back-to-back games, and the team was 13-2 in games following losses.
Make that 14-2, as the Wolf Pack tightened up its interior defense, shut down Trey Kell and pulled out an exciting 72-69 win before a national TV audience and a crowd of 8,461 Wednesday night at Lawlor Events Center.
The win was huge for a few reasons.
■ It came on the heels of a 77-76 loss to Fresno State last Saturday.
■ It was the first time that Nevada has beaten San Diego State as a member of the Mountain West Conference.
■ It was the first time Nevada had beaten the Aztecs since the 1998-99 season.
Both teams were coming off tough losses, and both coaches felt it was an important game.
“More than once whether it was at shootaround, at halftime, at pre-game or in a huddle there were multiple voices saying they couldn’t lose two games in a row,” Musselman said. “I read the San Diego paper; my mom reads it. I knew they felt they couldn’t lose two straight.
“It was a very important game for two teams that were coming off losses. It was a wildly entertaining game, and I don’t think anybody left Lawlor feeling they weren’t entertained.”
So, San Diego State sits at 0-2 in Mountain West play, while Nevada improved to 2-1 and 13-3 overall heading into road games at New Mexico and Wyoming.
“It was huge,” said senior D.J. Fenner, who finished with 17 points, including two free throws that turned out to be the game-winning points. “We had some close losses (against them). I’m glad we didn’t let it slip away.”
Fenner gave Nevada a 65-56 lead with 2:27 left on a 3-ball, but as they did throughout the game, the Aztecs wouldn’t go away.
Jeremy Hemsley (30 points) drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key, and after Marcus Marshall misfired, Zylan Cheatham flushed one to make it 65-61 with 1:09 left.
Marshall, who was quiet most of the night, knocked in a long 3-pointer to make it a 68-61 game with 39 seconds left. Hemsley bounced right back with another 3-pointer to make it 68-64.
The Aztecs had a couple fouls to give which they did. Nevada had to use a couple of timeouts, the second one called once they got near midcourt. Cam Oliver was fouled and missed the front end of a 1-and-1 situation.
Another bucket by Hemsley made it 68-66, and no doubt Pack players were thinking about the 10-point lead they lost at Fresno State.
With 18 seconds left, Fenner knocked down two free throws to make it 70-66 with 18 ticks left. A defensive gaffe allowed Max Hoetzel to get free for a 3-pointer.
Dell fouled Marshall, who calmly knocked down both shots to make it 72-69 with 9 seconds left. Hemsley’s 3-pointer came up short at the buzzer.
“We didn’t want to call a timeout because we knew they didn’t have any,” Musselman said. “We didn’t want them to get organized. They were well prepared for late-game situations.”
While it was Fenner and Marshall with some key plays down the stretch, it was good to see Oliver get going with 17 points and 11 rebounds.
Averaging less than a 10 a game in that three-game span, Oliver scored 10 in the opening half, including a monster putback flush that keyed a late 12-4 surge and put the Pack on top, 35-31.
Musselman had chastised Oliver for his effort, and he said that Oliver, especially on defense, had his best week of practice in two years.
Musselman clarified his comments from Saturday and Monday regarding Oliver’s play.
“You believe in somebody so much, and when you have unbelievable confidence in a player, one that you feel is a premier player you want to continue to push to get more out of his ability,” Musselman said.”
“I hadn’t played well the last three games,” Oliver admitted.
It’s a good thing that Oliver was back to his normal self, because Marshall tallied just five first-half points, including an early 3-pointer, in the opening half
A late surge enabled Marshall to extend his double-figure scoring streak to 16 games with his 12-point effort. He did have two clutch free throws late in the game, but it was his defense that may have been more valuable.
Kell was held to a 1-for-12 effort from the field en route to scoring a season-low 3 points in 32 minutes of action.
“It was the whole team,” Musselman said. “We talked about building a wall. We know what a great player Trey is. Lindsey Drew is the guy who normally gets that assignment, but Marcus Marshall was on him almost every possession. Marcus stepped up, and it was probably his best game defensively.”
It was truly a heavyweight battle through the first 20 minutes. Nevada’s biggest lead was five points and the Aztecs’ biggest advantage was four points.
San Diego took its last lead of the half, 27-23, with 5:25 left on a 3-pointer by Hemsley from the left corner.
The Pack roared back with six straight, four by Caroline, and two by Drew.
Caroline also had an impressive first half with 10 points and four rebounds, three at the offensive end. He converted two of his offensive rebounds into four straight free throws. He finished with 19 and 11, respectively.
“He plays with so much energy,” Musselman said. “His energy level isn’t a 3 or 4. It’s a max 10. His commitment to pursue the ball. He does that in practice, too. I think it rubs off on other people.”
A putback by Valentine Izundu cut Nevada’s lead to 30-29, but Oliver scored on a putback flush to make it 32-29. After Hemsley scored on a lay-up, Drew buried a triple from the top of the key with the shot clock running down.