The Nevada basketball team beat UNLV, 82-79, in an overtime thriller at Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday to improve to 16-10 overall and 9-5 in the Mountain West. Here are three takeaways from the game.
1. A Nevada-UNLV classic
Prior to Nevada and UNLV's first game this season, I listed my 13 most memorable games in the rivalry's history. When I refresh this list heading into next season, this game will make the cut. For only the third time in the 91 games played between these teams, the contest went into overtime. UNLV won the first two (in 1987 and 2016), but Nevada came out on top on this night. The Wolf Pack answered a couple of questions in this one. For starters, there were big questions about whether Nevada could win on the road while entering this game 1-7 in such games. The Wolf Pack showed it could win on the road. Secondarily, Nevada showed it could win a close game. The Wolf Pack was 1-2 in games that went down to the final possession and has not played in a lot of tightly contested games (credit Nevada for blowing out a lot of opponents). But this was a good test for the Wolf Pack, which played its first overtime game of the season and made the winning plays late that were required to secure the victory. Nevada, which did not have one of its sharper outings overall, could have folded late after UNLV went on a 10-0 second-half run with the Rebels holding a small lead for most of the final minutes of regulation. But Nevada showed the necessary resolve to win a road game on a night it didn't play its best (notably, Nevada made only 6-of-25 threes, its bread and butter on offense).
2. Credit the coaching staff
In my pre-game three keys and prediction (shameless plug: I had Nevada winning 82-77 and the Wolf Pack won 82-79), I wrote "but don’t be surprised if the Pack plays some zone to bait UNLV into taking threes." And that's just what Nevada did. UNLV is the third-worst 3-point shooting team in the Mountain West but triggered a season-high 39 3-point attempts. It made just nine of them, good for 23.1 percent (which is actually not very good at all). Meanwhile, UNLV made 20-of-42 shots inside the arc (47.6 percent). Nevada played more zone in this game than it has all season, and while zone is not Steve Alford's preferred defensive scheme, he did what was necessary to get the victory. Nevada's 1-3-1 scheme late in the game threw UNLV into a funk. The Rebels went crazy on the offensive glass, grabbing 21 offensive boards, in part because of the zone. But that zone also limited the driving lanes for UNLV, which wants to take teams off the dribble. UNLV started the game hot from three and was a capable 6-of-18 from beyond the arc in the first half. But Nevada didn't panic and made the Rebels beat it from three. UNLV was not up to the task, going 3-of-21 from beyond the arc after intermission (an abysmal 14.3 percent). Both of the stripes killed UNLV in this game. In addition to its struggles from three, UNLV went 12-of-25 from the free throw line. It's never good news when you can't hit half your freebies. That ultimately cost the Rebels.
3. Nevada's big picture
This was a huge win for Nevada. How huge? The victory moved the Wolf Pack into a tie for second place in the Mountain West standings. A loss would have dropped Nevada into sixth place, just outside the cut line for a bye in the MW Tournament. San Diego State (14-0 in the MW) has already clinched the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament (which is amazing given how early it is in the calendar) with Nevada, Utah State and Boise State tied for second at 9-5. Colorado State is in fifth at 8-5 and UNLV is sixth at 7-6. Nevada holds the tiebreaker over UNLV, so it would take a Wolf Pack collapse to not get a top-five seed and tournament bye. Nevada probably only needs to win one of its final four games to get that bye, and it still plays last-place Wyoming as well as Fresno State (9-16, 5-9) at home. The Wolf Pack's goal is to get the second or third seed so it could avoid a potential matchup with SDSU until the championship game. Nevada might need to win at New Mexico on Tuesday coupled with wins over Wyoming and Fresno State to accomplish that, but this was a great first step in the process. The win gave the Wolf Pack its rivalry-record sixth straight win over the Rebels and fifth consecutive road win at UNLV. The Rebels won 42 of the first 52 games between the teams, but Nevada is 21-18 against UNLV since 1994.
And somehow we did three takeaways without mentioning Jalen Harris, whose streak of 30-point games ended at four but he still finished with 29 points, a career-high 14 rebounds, five assists and two steals while playing all 45 minutes. Not too shabby.