If this is the best the Mountain West has to offer, Nevada should have little issue three-peating as regular-season conference champs.
Opening its league slate Wednesday night against Utah State, the second-best team in the MW during the non-conference season, the Wolf Pack showed how large the gap is between it and the rest of the league.
No. 5/6-ranked Nevada out-scored Utah State by double-digits in both halves to record a 72-49 victory over the Aggies before 11,224 fans, the 11th-largest crowd in Lawlor Events Center history. The 23-point margin of victory was tied for the third widest for Nevada this season, bested only by a 35-point win over Cal Baptist and a 28-point win over Little Rock in November. Given the level of competition, this victory was more impressive.
Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman and his players stopped short of saying the win sent a message to the conference in its MW opener, but they didn’t have to verbalize it themselves. The final margin told the story.
“Defensively about as good as we can play,” Musselman said after his team improved to 14-0. “I can’t say enough about the individual defensive effort of the five starters. I thought they were phenomenal.”
The 14-0 start is tied for the best in program history with the 1951-52 team – and just two wins shy of Nevada’s longest winning streak ever. This victory was spearheaded by the defense as the Wolf Pack played its best defensive game of the season without question. Utah State entered the contest averaging better than 81 points per game but was held to 49 points on 26.2 percent shooting, including 4-of-23 from three. The Aggies (10-4, 0-1) had more turnovers (20) than field goals (16) and hit just eight buckets in each half.
“I think it was a superb defensive performance,” Jordan Caroline said.
The Wolf Pack had a season-high 15 steals – four each from Tre’Shawn Thurman and Cody Martin and three from Jazz Johnson – and added five blocks, including three from Thurman. Utah State made 30.8 percent of its shots in the first half and 22.9 percent in the second half. Leading scorer Sam Merrill had 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting, but the rest of the Aggies made just 10-of-47 shots (21.3 percent).
“It’s awesome,” Cody Martin, the reigning MW defensive player of the year, said of getting more defensive help this season. “It’s a great feeling, and I give a lot of credit to those guys last year. We tried to play defense. We just weren’t the best defending team. This season, we have a lot of guys who like to defend, a lot of rim protectors. They do their job and the biggest thing is we help each other and we play for each other. It gives us an extra push on the defensive end.”
Backed by such a dominating defensive effort, the Wolf Pack (14-0, 1-0) was able to get away with a rather pedestrian offensive night. Nevada shot 39.3 percent from the field, including 7-of-29 from three. It turned the ball over 16 times, including a few from Caroline as he chased Nevada’s first triple-double since 1979, and shot only 20 free throws, a number Musselman was disappointed with (more from the refs’ calls than his team’s willingness to attack the rim).
“I was shocked we didn’t get to the free throw line tonight,” Musselman said. “We tried to establish inside and tried to dribble-drive and after that didn’t work we just shot a lot of threes.”
Leading scorer Caleb Martin was saddled with foul trouble and failed to hit double-figures in scoring for the first time this season. He finished with seven points before fouling out in 21 minutes, but Caroline (15 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists), Cody Martin (14 points, seven rebounds, six assists), Thurman (14 points) and Jazz Johnson (10 points) all hit double-figures. Trey Porter added eight points and eight rebounds.
“I don’t think it’s a message,” Thurman said of the dominant win. “I think we’re just trying to get better every single game. The only message we needed was that Washington game (an exhibition loss Nevada suffered to the Huskies). That was the message for us. That was hard for us. To a lot of guys on this team, we’re not undefeated. That was a loss. That was a message, and we’re trying to show we're trying to get better every week. That’s what we’re trying to do. We want to get better every week until we play in March.”
After some doldrum games in mid-December – namely close home wins against South Dakota State and Akron – the Wolf Pack has looked stellar in its last two outings, routs of Utah (on the road) and Utah State (at home). Musselman said he’s seen a renewed vigor from his team following a three-day break over Christmas.
“The guys are excited to play,” Musselman said. “I didn’t think we were excited to play against South Dakota State, and I didn’t think we were excited to play against Akon. We did enough to win those games, but I didn’t sense a kid in a candy store excitement to go play those games. Against Utah, we had that energy. We wanted to go play and competed and the same thing tonight, and I would hope every conference game we’d have the same juice of being fired up.”
If the Wolf Pack does that, it’s bad news for the rest of the MW.
Wolf Pack women fall in 2OTs
Despite a career-high 30 points from senior Terae Briggs, the Nevada women’s basketball team dropped a 79-76 double-overtime loss at Utah State to open MW action.
The Wolf Pack (4-8, 0-1 MW) trailed for most of the game, only leading for 4 minutes, 19 seconds of the 50 minutes of play. Nevada rallied from 15 points down in the third quarter to force overtime but was unable to complete the comeback.
Trailing by two with 35 seconds to go in overtime, Essence Booker grabbed a rebound off her missed three and laid in the putback to tie the score at 69. A missed 3-point attempt by the Aggies gave possession to Nevada with a chance to win as time expired, but Booker's layup attempt at the buzzer rolled off the front rim.
The Aggies had controlled most of the second overtime , but a turnover by Utah State gave the ball back to Nevada with 32 seconds on the clock. Jade Redmon quickly scored to make it a one-point game with 21 seconds to go. Olivia West then hit four free throws from that point forward and Booker's 3-point attempt to tie the game at the end of the second overtime didn't fall.
Nevada continues MW play Saturday when it hosts New Mexico at 2 p.m.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.