Nevada was no stranger to big tournament deficits last season, and it started this year’s postseason play with the same formula.
The Wolf Pack, which overcame massive holes to beat Texas and Cincinnati in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, also gave itself a big deficit in its Mountain West Tournament opener in Las Vegas.
But just as it shook out of those big holes last season, Nevada did the same against Boise State in Thursday's MW Tournament quarterfinal, overcoming a 15-point first-half deficit to score a hard-fought 77-69 victory.
"The thing with our ball club is down 15, no panic." Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said. "It seems that we've kind of been in those situations where we've gotten down and figured out a way to come from behind on a big stage. And today was no different."
It required a lot of energy as the Martin twins both played the entire game and Jordan Caroline and Jazz Johnson both logged 37 minutes, but Nevada advanced to play the winner of the UNLV-San Diego State game in the semifinals Friday at 6 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.
The Wolf Pack’s role players came up huge in the win, with Jazz Johnson scoring a team-high 20 points while making 5-of-7 3-pointers. Tre’Shawn Thurman added 17 points and five rebounds while making 8-of-10 shots. Caleb Martin added 19 points and Cody Martin had 10 points, nine assists and five boards.
With Boise State focusing on the Wolf Pack's three stars – the Broncos did hold Jordan Caroline to seven points on 2-of-7 shooting – Thurman and Johnson were the difference.
"Everybody keys on them," Johnson said of Nevada's stars. "So that kind of leaves me as the X factor, me and Tre. They do a really good job of trying to find me. I just stay prepared and I was shooting open shots. That's what it comes down to is the big three did a really good job making sure they were sharing the ball."
No. 8 seed Boise State, which beat Colorado State on Wednesday to advance to play top-seeded Nevada, got off to a great start, hitting its first four 3-pointers to take a 27-12 lead with 7:37 remaining in the first half. But the Wolf Pack was able to chop that down to a more manageable deficit thanks to a pair of 6-0 runs before intermission, although Boise State still led 34-29 heading into the second half.
Nevada scored the first five points of the second half as part of a larger 10-0 run that spanned both halves. The Wolf Pack, which trailed the entire first half, built a seven-point lead midway through the second half, but it wasn’t able to shake Boise State until the final minute. With the game tied at 62, Cody Martin hit a jumper with 4:03 left to give Nevada the lead for good. It remained a one-possession game until Martin hit an off-balance 20-footer with 1:17 left to give the Wolf Pack a 70-65 edge before Nevada iced the game from the line.
"We stunk for 12 minutes," Musselman said. "It was hard to watch. I would have rather gone to the dentist and gotten some teeth pulled than watch us on both sides of the ball. I thought halftime we were able to regroup a little bit. The guys were able to get their minds clear. And I thought to shoot the ball 62 percent in the second half, we just – that's kind of last year, this year – it's kind of like, 'When are we going to get hot?'
"And in the three games that we've lost this year, we really haven't found that spurt. And so the other 29 games we found a spurt at some point during the game. And today in the second half I thought offensively we were phenomenal. We did a much better job in the second half in our zone offense."
Boise State started its two centers, sat in a zone and tried to slow the game down to neuter Nevada’s offense. That formula almost won out, but the Wolf Pack got great efforts from Johnson and Thurman, who combined for 37 points on 13-of-17 shooting. Johnson came up with a number of big threes and Thurman’s work inside helped pick apart the Broncos’ zone.
"It was fun because everyone's competing and a lot of people, their lives are on the line," Thurman said. "A lot of teams, a lot of players, it could be the last time they put on that jersey. So we have to come with the same mindset and mentality, and I think we did in the second half today."
Nevada shot 48.1 percent from the field, making 9-of-23 3-pointers, but it struggled for the most part to get stops against Boise State. The Broncos shot 45.5 percent from the field, hitting 8-of-17 3-pointers.
Derrick Alston led the Broncos with 21 points on 7-of-15 shooting. Justinian Jessup added 18 points on 7-of-17 shooting. But Boise State’s most important player was Zach Haney, a 6-foot-11 big man who had 10 points, seven rebounds and three assists but fouled out after just 24 minutes. Nevada was out-scored by seven points when Haney was on the floor while out-scoring the Broncos by 15 when he was on the bench. Haney picked up his fifth and final foul with Boise State leading 60-59 with 4:44 remaining. Nevada went on a 13-5 run thereafter.
"It obviously didn't help because Zach's been scoring so well," Boise State coach Leon Rice said of losing Haney. "So it takes one of our weapons away and shortens the choices we had that we can make."
The Wolf Pack, which grabbed just six offensive rebounds in a two-game regular-season sweep of Boise State, owned the backboard Thursday. Nevada had a 33-25 edge on the glass and grabbed nine offensive boards to Boise State’s five. The Wolf Pack had 10-4 advantage in second-chance points.
"I just thought we were soft going to the backboards early in the game," Musselman said. "And they were physical. And, again, I think that I was really impressed with how Boise came out from the beginning of the game trying to take the game to us. And they got us on our heels a little bit. And certainly the physicality on the glass was what we felt was a major issue for us."
The win moved Nevada to 29-3, trying the program record for wins in a season, set in 2006-07 and matched in 2017-18. The Wolf Pack has already locked itself into the NCAA Tournament, but its MW Tournament showing will impact its seeding for the Big Dance (Nevada is on the edge of a fifth/sixth seed). The Wolf Pack also is looking for its second MW Tournament title ever, having won in 2017. Nevada fell to SDSU in last year's MW Tournament semifinals in a lopsided loss.
"I think we want to remember that last year we did not cut a net down here," Musselman said. "The year before we won the regular-season championship and then followed it up with a tournament championship."
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.