Athletic Director Doug Knuth told Nevada Basketball head coach Eric Musselman that Saturday’s game against second-place Boise State felt like a heavyweight title fight the way both teams landed heavy blow after heavy blow. The game pitted the two Mountain West teams that appeared in the latest Bracketology report, two teams who both felt they had something to prove. In front of the 11th highest attended game at Lawlor Events Center, the Nevada Basketball team showed why they deserved to be sitting atop the Mountain West Conference.
“We’re trying to stay at the top,” forward Jordan Caroline said. “In Reno, every game is tough. We try to rise to the challenge of every game and we don’t look down on any opponent. We think every opponent is a tough opponent.”
At first tip, Nevada delivered a quick strike as Caleb Martin streaked down the court to get ahead of the Pack to slam in the opening basket. Offensively, the Wolf Pack was carried by its big three hitters in Martin, Jordan Caroline and Kendall Stephens. The trio combined for all the team’s points in the first half. In fact, no other Wolf Pack player scored in the game until Lindsey Drew scored a layup with 13:20 remaining in the second half.
The Broncos, who headed into the game ranked fourth in KenPom.com’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Rankings, tried to slow down the Wolf Pack attack with a 2-3 zone in large stretches throughout the game. Caroline and Martin made it a point of emphasis to attack the middle of the zone, running the high pick-and-roll with great efficiency.
“Playing them last year, we knew they played a lot of zone. It wasn’t too much of a difference we played Utah State last week and they played zone too,” Caroline said. “Yeah, it’s just one of our plays to get to the middle, play make from the middle of the zone.”
In the waning moments of the first half, the Wolf Pack delivered the first critical run of the game as it ended the half on a 9-4 run capped by three threes: Martin drained two while Stephens hit the other one.
It’s common strategy for Musselman to try and limit the offensive impact of opposing teams’ best players. There’s no doubt who’s the star for the Broncos: Chandler Hutchison. While he had a decent first half — he scored eight points on 3-of-6 shooting — the second half was a whole different story.
A momentum-shifting 12-1 run to start the second half was sparked by a dunk, steal, and a transition assist by Hutchison. After a jumper by Lexus Williams to stretch the Boise State lead to three, Musselman called a rare timeout.
“They came out with a purpose in the second half,” Musselman said. “They were determined to turn up the defensive intensity. They caused us to turn the ball over. We were lackadaisical out of halftime. And we had to respond or not and there was a couple of turnovers that we didn’t get back on defense. Defensively, we jogged back.”
Typically, Nevada has been a team that has relied on its high-octane offense and sweet shooting to carry them in the early portion of the season. In ugly fashion amidst a dogfight, the Wolf Pack responded with its defense and hustle.
Hallice Cooke, who played a season-high 29 minutes, made critical hustle plays down the stretch that didn’t show up in the box score. Following a questionable blocking foul that allowed Chandler Hutchison a trip to charity stripe — those two points cut the lead down to two with 2:17 remaining in the game — he responded with two key defensive plays. First, Cooke battled against 6’11” forward Zach Haney for a rebound and forced a critical jump ball to give Nevada the rock. Two possessions later, with Nevada leading by three with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game, Cooke deflected the ball off Boise State’s Alex Hobbs, thwarting another Bronco attempt to tie the game.
“Lindsey, Josh, Hallice, came up with huge plays down the stretch and that’s when we got on those little runs,” Martin said. “We kinda had them with their backs against the wall a little bit. Those were huge plays despite whatever big plays that people hit or layups or free throws. It’s just the hustle plays. I feel like really won it for us tonight.”
Finally, he delivered the nail to the coffin as he converted the two most important points of the night as he coolly sunk two game-sealing free throws.
“I thought Hallice scores two points but he had a huge impact emotionally, not just his seven rebounds,” Musselman said. “I thought he did a good job.”
Saturday’s game preserved the Wolf Pack’s 15-game home winning streak. With the win, the Wolf Pack secures a critical two-game cushion as it resides in first place in the conference.
“The bottom line is prior to the game, win or lose there’s so much basketball to be played. We can’t get too high on this game,” Musselman said. “Laramie’s a hard place to play. They’ve already beaten San Diego State, they’ve beaten Boise State. We have a really difficult schedule down the stretch. We’re gonna play in front of some huge crowds on the road. We’ve got a long road ahead of us. It’s a great win for us for sure. Something we’re gonna enjoy until midnight and then we’re gonna turn the page and we gotta get ready for Wyoming. That’s the most important thing going forward.”