In the aftermath of Nevada’s loss to New Mexico in early January, a 27-point beatdown that's even harder to explain today than the night it happened, Wolf Pack forward Tre’Shawn Thurman got requests.
It was from Nevada fans who wanted tickets to the rematch five weeks later. Thurman largely shrugged off those requests because he knew there were several games still to play before Nevada got another crack at New Mexico. But that game is finally here as the Lobos play at Nevada at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“People understood this was a big game,” Thurman said of the early ticket requests. “It created so much tension in the air, people wanted to be a part of it. I know our crowd is going to be ready for it. Our crowd is going to be ready to go crazy for 40 minutes, and we’re going to need that from them. That’s what they’ve done consistently this season, which is boost us and lift us throughout the season.”
Revenge is certainly on the radar for Nevada, which is 22-1 overall and 9-1 in Mountain West play. That lone loss came at The Pit as New Mexico (10-12, 4-6) shredded the Wolf Pack in perhaps the biggest upset of the college basketball season. It was one of just two Lobos wins this season against a team ranked in the 235 of the NET rankings (the other top-235 win came Tuesday against San Diego State).
“We played a bad game,” Nevada coach Eric Musselman said of its loss in Albuquerque. “New Mexico played a really good game.”
New Mexico led by 12 points at halftime before blowing out Nevada after intermission. The Lobos out-scored the Wolf Pack by 21 points from the 3-point line, out-rebounded it by 10 and forced 14 turnovers from a usually sharp Nevada team. The Wolf Pack was limited to a season-low 58 points and shot a season-worst 33.3 percent from the field.
“It’s hard to say what happened,” Thurman said. “We were just off and they were on. That’s the simple way to put it. They had a great crowd. The atmosphere was crazy. I don’t want to give excuses. They had a great night and we didn’t have a great night. A lot can go to their game planning, but that was last game and now they’re going to game plan for us and there’s going to be a lot of coaching adjustments. But I don’t think it’s going to come down to that. It’s going to come down to who wants it more.”
New Mexico is one of the few MW teams that can match up physically and athletically with Nevada. That was on display in the Lobos’ win last month. But that kind of performance has been rare for New Mexico, which was picked to finish third in the MW in the preseason poll but sits in tied for eighth and is two games under .500 overall. The win over New Mexico didn’t spark the Lobos, either. They went on to lose six of their next seven games following the Wolf Pack win before beating SDSU this week.
The Wolf Pack said it took some lessons from that loss, which stung more because of how Nevada lost the game – in lopsided fashion with little fight back – rather than the fact that it lost in the first place.
“Losing is not really a problem, but it’s how you lose sometimes,” Thurman said. “It was how we lost, and that’s the biggest thing we took from the New Mexico game. I think we already understood that (we could lose), but it was more that we could get popped like that if we don’t bring it, and if we are getting popped how are we going to react?"
Nevada has risen its level of play since that loss, winning eight in a row, with each of the last five victories coming by at least 15 points. The Wolf Pack offense, which went through a 10-game period of average play, has been elite during that stretch, with Nevada solving the zone defense that gave it fits at New Mexico. It’s helped that Nevada has made 43.4 percent of its 3-pointers in its last four games.
“Because we’re a veteran team, I think they’re sensing what part of the season we’re in,” Musselman said of the improved offensive play. “I know it sounds kind of weird, but like in baseball in spring training, a guy’s hitting .180 and all of a sudden they get back to being a .280 or .300 hitter (during the season). Eventually I knew these numbers were going to even out. If we have a bad offensive game Saturday or two weeks from now, that’s going to be an anomaly because right now we’re playing offensively like I thought we would from the beginning.”
Nevada’s defense has slipped the last two games, an area of focus heading into Saturday’s New Mexico game. And while his team will certainly be pumped up to face the only squad that has dealt it a defeat, Musselman doesn’t expect extra energy from his team, which usually plays with elite effort.
“We haven’t been a team that fluctuates with our effort level; we haven’t been in four years and we never will be,” Musselman said. “Our guys play hard every night. I don’t think they played any harder against Cincinnati (in the NCAA Tournament) than they did against South Dakota State (this season). We are who we are. We play hard. We’re consistent. That’s the thing I’m proud of with our team. I don’t anticipate us playing any harder or less hard come Saturday or any other game this year.”
Musselman does, however, expect a little extra from the Lawlor Events Center fans.
“I’d be shocked if it’s not the loudest I’ve ever heard Lawlor,” Musselman said.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.