During a timeout with less than four minutes to play in Nevada’s game against Cal Baptist on Monday night at Lawlor Events Center, the announced attendance of 9,395 Wolf Pack fans started to serenade the team’s coach.
“Happy birthday to you,” the fans sang in unison. “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, Coach Musselman. Happy birthday to you.”
Nevada celebrated Eric Musselman’s 54th birthday with its biggest rout of the year, a 90-55 victory over Cal Baptist, a first-year Division I team, to cap an undefeated season-opening four-game home stand.
“I texted him this morning and told him, ‘We’ll get you a win for your birthday,’ and we got it for him,” said Jazz Johnson, one of six Wolf Pack players to score in double figures. “Happy birthday, Muss.”
Musselman wasn’t completely happy with the victory, citing a slow first 10 minutes offensively and a poor final 10 minutes defensively, but Nevada still dominated. After that sluggish start – the Wolf Pack was down 14-11 after eight minutes of action – Nevada (4-0) skated past the Lancers (2-2) and never looked back.
The Wolf Pack ended the first half on a 31-10 run and scored the first nine points of the second half en route to the 35-point victory, which might not have been perfect but was more than enough to get the victory.
“I felt like we played the way that we should from a defensive standpoint,” Musselman said. “We played with good offensive pace with the exception of the first 10 minutes. The last 30 minutes offensively we played really well. The first 10 we were stagnant, the ball didn’t move. We had one assist through the first 10 minutes of the game and we can’t play like that and win with the schedule we have coming up.”
Despite the big advantage for most of the game, Musselman showed some frustration, kicking the advertisement board on press row after an early second-half turnover with his team leading by 18. After the win, he warned the reserves who saw some big minutes late in the contest that they must defend better if they want to see future playing time.
But there was little doubt who was superior in this game. Nevada shot 50.9 percent from the field, but just 5-of-18 from three. The Wolf Pack limited Cal Baptist to 31.1 percent shooting, the 55 points allowed just three shy of the best mark in Musselman’s four seasons as Nevada’s head coach. The Wolf Pack was on pace to hold the Lancers well below the 50-point mark before the reserves had some difficulty defending.
“I think certain guys have really come far and certain guys have a long, long way to go defensively,” Musselman said. “When the competition increases, if we switch pick-and-rolls they have to be able to keep the ball in front of you. Right now, that’s a concern for several guys and it will affect minutes and roles. We’re won’t be playing at home, so there’s no margin for error. Defensively is the way we’ll have to win on the road. We’re going to switch. That’s who we are. We tried tinkering to fit certain pick-and-rolls, but the guys who have been here came to me and said, ‘Play it the way you’ve done since we’ve been here.’ I didn’t think our defense was very good the last 7-12 minutes.”
Musselman said he was pleased with the defense of Caleb Martin, Jordan Caroline, Tre’Shawn Thurman and Trey Porter, and Cody Martin has constantly drawn positive reviews for his defense over the last two years. Not coincidentally, those are the five players in the Wolf Pack’s starting lineup. With Nevada heading on the road for the first time – it will play Tulsa in Las Vegas on Thanksgiving Day – the team's focus will remain on defense.
“It was definitely a good win,” Porter said. “We came out a little slow, but we were able to pick it up a little bit and lock down defensively and that will give us momentum going into this next road trip we’ve got.”
The Wolf Pack spread things out offensively, no player scoring more than 16 points but six reaching double-figures. Jordan Brown led the way with 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting. He scored 13 straight points for Nevada during a second-half stretch. Porter and Caleb Martin both had 14 points. Jazz Johnson added 11 off the bench, hitting three 3-pointers in the fourth straight outing. And Thurman and Caroline each had 10, with Caroline adding 10 rebounds for the 30th double-double of his career.
“That first 10 minutes was below our standards and if we do that against the teams we have coming up on the schedule, we’ll be down by 20 points,” said Thurman, who added six boards, two assists and two steals.
Nevada shrugged off that slow start thanks to its attacks on the rim. The Wolf Pack attempted 20 free throws before Cal Baptist got to the line for the first time. Nevada ended up 27-of-38 from the stripe, out-scoring the Lancers by 16 points from the line.
“We watched the Tulsa game and Tulsa did a great job against Cal Baptist driving the ball and they had a ton of free throw attempts,” Musselman said. “They had 40, so we were two short of our goal. We felt like we had to be 40, but we got 38. Every game has its own identity. Free throw attempts is something we try to focus on every game but especially tonight.”
Nevada’s next six games will be played away from Lawlor Events Center, including four on neutral courts. Two of those will be against Pac-12 teams – Arizona State and USC – and one will be against a Final Four team from a season ago (Loyola Chicago). Those will be good litmus tests for Nevada, which checked in at No. 6 (AP) and No. 7 (coaches) in the Top 25 polls earlier in the day.
The Wolf Pack opened the season in front of friendly (and big) crowds, crossing the 10,000-fan mark in three of its four games. On Monday, Musselman was drawing up a play when the crowd started to sing him happy birthday.
“I heard he,” he admitted. “That was pretty cool. That was nice of them. I’m glad we were up by a lot.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.