The Nevada Wolf Pack won this past week’s Mountain West Conference Tournament, clinching their first NCAA Tournament berth in a decade. The Wolf Pack won three games in three days, defeating conference foes Utah State, Fresno State and Colorado State to secure their automatic bid for the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Below is a look at how the Wolf Pack punched their ticket to the Big Dance.
The Wolf Pack opened Mountain West Conference Tournament play against an opponent who had previously defeated them in their initial matchup in Utah State. The Wolf Pack, winner of six straight games heading into the tournament, dominated in this wire-to-wire victory.
Led by the dynamic duo of Cameron Oliver and Jordan Caroline, the Wolf Pack dominated the defensive glass and interior scoring. Nevada outrebounded Utah State 38-29 and outscored the Aggies by 18 points in the paint.
“That was one of our emphases going into the game, was to win the rebounding battle,” Caroline said. “We took it upon ourselves to go out and get those rebounds and take care of business.”
The Aggies were no match for the physical play of both Oliver and Marshall as they accounted for a combined 41 points and 19 rebounds. Marcus Marshall helped chip in 14 points of his own on 5-of-11 shooting as the Wolf Pack advances to the semifinals of the tournament.
“This is crunch time,” Oliver said. “Anything can happen in the tournaments. The eight seed vs. one seed—that’s tough. Anything can happen. Coming out aggressive and really keying in for everything is going to help us win.”
The Fresno State Bulldogs are the only team in the Mountain West to best the Wolf Pack in both conference meetings, winning both games by a combined margin of six points. The Bulldogs are a lengthy and physical team that thrives on imposing their will in the paint. On paper, the Wolf Pack is the far superior team. However, much like Ken Norton was to Muhammad Ali, these Bulldogs present a matchup nightmare for Nevada’s non-traditional lineups.
On Friday night, the Wolf Pack was able to exorcise its demons and defeat the team that accounted for a third of their losses this season.
“These guys wanted to play Fresno,” Coach Eric Musselman said. “We got on the bus last night for this game and they were happy that they were getting another chance to play Fresno.”
One of the recurring themes this season for the Wolf Pack is their keen ability to come back from deficits. The game that garnered the team the national spotlight was its 25-point second half comeback victory in overtime against the New Mexico Lobos earlier in the season. The team was no stranger to being in these large deficits and once again on Friday night, the Wolf Pack found itself down by 11 points at the break—this time with their NCAA Tournament hopes on the line.
“I told them at halftime you just have to have pride,” Oliver said. “We’ve been in this situation before. We had our heads down for this one but we had to remind ourselves that we’ve been in this situation. Twenty minutes is a long time and we just kept our heads up and just got the win.”
In the second half, the Wolf Pack went berserk and shot itself out of its shooting funk. Compared to the first half where they shot 6-of-30 from the field, in the second half, Nevada made 19-of-24 shots at a clip of 79.2 percent.
Nevada’s scoring load was carried by its triggerman, Marcus Marshall, who scored 28 points and dished out five assists on the night. Oliver also came up big scoring 27 points of his own while more importantly controlling the defensive glass as he grabbed 11 rebounds.
“I just wanted to come out and be aggressive and take good shots,” Marshall said. “I credit my coaches for giving me the confidence and my teammates for finding me in the right spots at the right time. The ball was dropping for so from there it wasn’t much else for me to really do. That’s my role on the team—to be aggressive and to make shots. In this type of game, in this type of environment, I’ve got to come through.”
Fresno State Coach Rodney Terry has become vilified by Wolf Pack fans for his notorious remarks following a Wolf Pack victory over the Bulldogs last season in which he gave Nevada “no credit” for their win due to injuries on their side. This time around, when asked about who the better team was, Terry was still hesitant to give Nevada their due credit.
“Are you kidding me?” Terry said. “We beat them twice – twice. They got us tonight but we’re better.”
While the Bulldogs won the regular season matchups, the Wolf Pack won when it mattered and advanced to the MWC Tournament Final.
The Hall Monitor
A week removed from defeating the Colorado State Rams to claim their first-ever Mountain West Conference Championship, the Nevada Wolf Pack was headed to another championship match against the same opponent, this time with all the marbles on the line. While the Wolf Pack handily defeated the Rams in their matchup on Mar. 4, Colorado State was peaking and playing their best basketball in the games leading up to the MWC Tournament final. Led by the MWC Player of the Year, Gian Clavell, who exploded for 33 points in their previous outing, the Rams dangerously stood between the Wolf Pack’s NCAA Tournament aspirations.
Nevada started the game with a bevy of baskets, storming out to an early 9-0 run, forcing a quick timeout by Rams Coach Larry Eustachy. Compared to the night before, where the Wolf Pack struggled to jump out of the gates, the Wolf Pack led by as much as 16 points in the first half. While the Wolf Pack seemed to control the pace of the first half, a buzzer-beating three by guard Prentiss Nixon brought the lead down to 12 at the break, giving the Rams the spark it needed to carry momentum to the second half.
“You have to give Colorado State a ton of credit,” Musselman said. “Coach Eustachy is one of the best coaches in the country. At halftime, we talked to the team. We all discussed that they wouldn’t go away. They would make a run. Coach Eustachy’s teams always do. They’re tough minded and they compete.”
In the second half, the Wolf Pack seemed to have lost the initial spark they had in the opening minutes of the game. Clavell and Nixon combined for 29 points in the second half, sparking a Rams comeback to tie the game at 51 with 11:33 left in the game. While the Rams were able to deadlock the game, they were unable to ever take the lead as Cameron Oliver, who struggled with foul trouble in the first half, made his presence felt on the defensive end and glass.
Freshman Josh Hall, who has steadily received minutes as Musselman’s key reserve off the bench, helped neutralize Clavell’s offensive attack as well as scoring in key moments in the game. Over the past few games, Hall has found his niche as a defensive stopper and opportunistic scorer.
“Absolutely incredible,” Musselman said regarding his freshman forward. “From a defensive standpoint, when Josh checks in that allows us to take Lindsey Drew off the best offensive player. Lindsey’s a young player, he’s a sophomore, he’s gonna build his body and get stronger and so is Josh. That’s one of the things we’re excited about is our young players coming into our program as freshmen. Josh’s development is incredible. He’s not a guy that we look to offensively but the play of the game was his left-handed layup and-1 and right when we put him in the game he’s in the right corner and bangs a three. I just thought his contributions were absolutely incredible because we didn’t run a play for him and he had twelve points.”
While the Wolf Pack only scored on 4-of-22 field goals in the second half, they capitalized on getting to the foul line as they drained 26-of-34 free throws compared to the Rams’ two total free throws in the second half.
“When my shot’s not dropping, Coach Muss always tells me to attack and try to get to the line and that will help me get going,” Marcus Marshall said. “I just tried to stay in attack mode and I got to the line 16 times.”
By winning these three games, the Wolf Pack took fate out of the equation as they punched their ticket to the Big Dance. They will be headed to Milwaukee to play the Cyclones of Iowa State in the Round of 64 on Thursday, Mar. 16.
“It’s extremely special,” D.J. Fenner said. “For coach to put us all in this situation has been amazing. The last time I remember being here I was crying because we lost and I didn’t know who my next coach was going to be. Now a couple of years later, I’m here and we won it. It’s absolutely amazing and I couldn’t be more thankful for my coaches and my brothers.”