RENO - It took the Nevada Wolf Pack roughly 15 minutes of basketball to figure out the season had actually started Tuesday night.
"We were just too relaxed," said coach David Carter after a 77-60 exhibition victory over the Chico State Wildcats at Lawlor Events Center in front of 3,192 fans. "The guys thought it was going to be too easy."
"Our energy level was low," senior Olek Czyz said.
The Pack, down 31-22 with 4:51 to play in the first half, seemed to be on the way to its second stunning exhibition loss in two seasons (they lost to Seattle Pacific 84-81 last November).
"We were just expecting things to come to us instead of forcing the action," said senior Dario Hunt of the slow start.
That mindset ended after a timeout with 4:45 to play in the first half.
"We knew we had to pick up the energy," Hunt said.
The Wolf Pack went on a 12-0 run to close out the first half, scoring the final 10 points of the game-changing run in a span of just 2:15. Kevin Panzer hit a short jumper off the glass to start the run with 4:30 to play in the half and Patrick Nyeko closed it out with a deep 3-pointer from the top of the circle with 22 seconds left for a 34-31 halftime lead.
"Everything started to flow for us on offense and defense," said Czyz, who had 12 points and seven rebounds in 28 minutes. "We started making free throws, started rebounding better."
It was as if someone just flicked on a switch.
"Once we started to force the action we played much better," Carter said.
Jordan Finn and Malik Story each had layups during the 12-0 run to close out the first half and Jerry Evans had a dunk off a feed from point guard Deonte Burton as the Pack took control of the game.
At halftime Carter then made sure what happened in the first 15 minutes of the first half wouldn't return in the second half.
"I just told them, 'bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep,'" smiled Carter, referring to his halftime message.
The Pack definitely got the message, although some of that first half relaxed feeling did start to creep back into their play at times. The Wolf Pack led the entire second half but Chico State did pull to within a bucket (43-41) on a layup by Josh Jackson with 15 minutes to play. The Pack also led just 55-52 with eight minutes to go after a 3-pointer by Chico State's Amir Carraway.
"I think it was actually better for us that we were in a close game rather than a blowout because we learned more from this," Czyz said.
The Pack actually won this game at the free throw line, draining 20-of-30 from the line. Chico was just 6-of-9 from the free throw line for the game. The officials called nearly twice (25-14) as many fouls on the Wildcats as they did on the Pack.
It was a stretch of seven successful free throws in a span of 55 seconds that gave the Pack come much-needed breathing room at 62-52 with 6:51 to play.
"We always talk about having more free throws made than the opponents attempt," Carter said. "That was a big part of this game."
The Pack then turned the final seven minutes into a highlight tape as Story hit a 3-pointer for a 67-56 lead with 3:17 to play, Hunt had a pair of layups and Evans had a dunk off a pass from Story. Story then put the finishing touches on the victory with his second and final 3-pointer for a 77-58 lead with 38 seconds left.
Hunt, who made just 6-of-15 shots from the floor, led the Pack with 18 points and 11 rebounds in 34 minutes. Evans and Story each had 11 points.
"The guys had their heads down in the locker room after the game because they thought they didn't play well," Carter said. "But I just told them you can't take any win for granted."
The Pack did a lot of things well, out-rebounding the Wildcats 45-28, getting to the free throw line 30 times and hitting 24-of-45 from inside the 3-point line. But they also had 20 turnovers.
"Nobody can be satisfied with the way they played," Carter said. "Everyone did some things well and some other things not so well. We can learn a lot from this game. We made some mistakes but it's things we can clean up."
"We got a win, which is something we couldn't say last year," said Hunt, referring to the loss to Seattle Pacific a year ago. "We can obviously play much better than this and we will starting Friday."
The Pack opens the regular season on Friday (7 p.m.) at Lawlor Events Center against Missouri State.
"We're going to have to play much, much better against Missouri State than we did tonight if we want to win," Carter said