Jazz Johnson wasn’t in Atlanta when Nevada lost to Loyola-Chicago in last year’s Sweet 16.
Like many people, he watched the Wolf Pack’s 69-68 loss in the NCAA Tournament on television.
But the defeat stung Johnson, who was redshirting as an NCAA transfer, just as deeply. And when the Mountain West and Missouri Valley paired Nevada and Loyola-Chicago for a rematch in this season's MW-MVC Challenge, Johnson was as eager as any Wolf Pack player to get a second crack at the Ramblers.
“100 percent it’s a revenge game,” Johnson said of Nevada’s matchup Tuesday at Loyola-Chicago. “As much as we didn’t play, we played a big part in last year’s team’s success because we helped those guys prepare for everything and we’re passionate about it, too. It broke our heart to see them lose. We want to go out and really get this win for the guys last year but also for us this season as well.”
While both teams are working on a clean slate this season – Nevada (6-0) is ranked fifth in the nation while Loyola-Chicago (4-2) has already been tagged with two losses – last year’s game remains in the memories of those who played in the contest. Nevada point guard Cody Martin had 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals in the loss, the game never escaping his mind for too long.
“Probably every day,” Martin said when asked how often he thinks about the Sweet 16 loss. “It’s just one of those games you really wish you could have back.”
Two plays are etched in Martin’s mind, both coming in the final minute. With Nevada trailing 64-63 with 49 seconds left, Hallice Cooke, a 47.8 percent shooter from three, was lined up for a wide-open corner trey. That was his specialty, but on this occasion he misfired.
“We had a corner shot with Hallice and I wouldn’t have wanted anybody else to shoot it, not even Kendall (Stephens) because I’ve seen Hallice make that shot a million times and nine times out of 10 it doesn’t even hit the rim,” Martin said. “He makes that shot. It just didn’t fall, and I wish it would have because it wouldn’t have been better for anybody else. It would have been an awesome experience for somebody like him to have that given everything he’s been through and what he brought to our team.”
The other play that sits in Martin’s memory came 43 seconds later. After the teams traded two free throws apiece, the Wolf Pack still trailed by one and opted to try and get a stop and one final possession rather than foul to prolong the game. The strategy backfired when Marques Townes drilled a contested 3-pointer over Caleb Martin’s out-stretched arm to put Loyola-Chicago up four with six seconds left.
“Obviously that last shot was one of those you wish they would have missed, but they didn’t,” said Cody Martin, who answered with a 3-pointer of his own with 2 seconds remaining but Nevada never got another possession and was ousted from the tournament. “It’s just something that fuels us and it’s just going to be one of those games that will be really competitive, and I think a lot of people are looking forward to the game.”
Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman has not obsessed over that loss, adding its best not to do so if you want to keep your sanity. He re-watched the game only once in the offseason, doing so to review pick-and-roll strategies for this season and not doing so in an attempt to exorcise any demons from the defeat.
“I know some coaches say they go back and watch, whether it’s a Super Bowl coach or coach of an NCAA Tournament team and think, ‘Hey, that could have been us in the final,’” Musselman said. “I don’t really look at it like that. I’m sure Coach (Shaka) Smart at Texas is looking at the thing saying, ‘Hey, we could have beat Nevada. We were up 12 with X amount of time.’ I certainly know Cincinnati is saying that.
“To me, we could have lost to Texas, we could have lost to Cincinnati. I’m not really good about certain things in coaching and handling losses right after a game, but one thing I really don’t look back much on is big games that we won, games that we lost and could have advanced. You win some that you shouldn’t as well.”
As Loyola-Chicago advanced to the Final Four after routing No. 9 seed Kansas State two days after topping Nevada, the Wolf Pack headed home thinking about what might have been.
“I just remember us beating ourselves,” Johnson said. “We basically had the game and it’s a matter of a few possessions and playing every possession, and Muss stresses that in practice every day. Every game comes down to one possession and it’s just a matter of us buckling down and being ready every day.”
While unable to fulfill a Final Four destiny last season, the Wolf Pack is even deeper in talent this season while Loyola-Chicago is working to replace three of its top six players from a season ago. Tuesday’s game starts Nevada’s toughest three-game stretch of the non-conference season, with contests against USC (on the road) and Arizona State (at the NBA’s Staples Center) coming thereafter.
“The good thing with a lot of these games we have coming up, you win the game and it really helps you,” Musselman said. “You lose the game and it doesn’t necessarily hurt you that much. That’s the beauty of playing really good competition and especially when you do it on the road and not at home. The Texas Tech loss last year internally hurt because we felt like we should have won, but that loss actually helped us because we were willing to go on the road and competed against a really good team. That loss at Staples Center against TCU actually helped us. The great thing about these games coming up is they will not hurt us as long as we play hard and play the way that we’re supposed to.”
Nevada knows a win over Loyola-Chicago this week won’t erase the Sweet 16 loss, which was on a much bigger stage with much bigger stakes. The Ramblers do, however, expect a sellout of 4,486-seat Gentile Center for the rematch with the Wolf Pack. And if all goes well for both teams, another deep run in March could be in the cards.
“March is an extremely fun time,” Cody Martin said. “It can be something that gives you a lot of memories and something that can really, really stay with you for the rest of your life. What happened last year is something that will stick with me forever, and it’s one of the greatest experiences I’ve had in my basketball career.”
Nevada aims to go even further in the tournament this March. But first, on Tuesday, the Wolf Pack seeks revenge.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.