RENO - The Nevada Wolf Pack basketball team learned a very valuable lesson Saturday afternoon.
"Our defense won this game," point guard Deonte Burton said after a 59-51 win over the San Francisco Dons at Lawlor Events Center. "The shots weren't falling so our defense picked us up."
The Wolf Pack missed 21 of its 23 3-point shots and connected on just 35 percent of its field goal tries overall. Fortunately for the Pack, though, San Francisco was just as cold from the field, missing 13 of its 15 3-pointers and hitting just 34 percent from the floor.
"If you play defense like we played today, you are always going to be in the game, whether you are 2-for-23 from the field or 15-for-23," junior Jordan Burris said.
The only Pack player of the nine who played against the Dons who shot 50 percent or better from the field was Patrick Nyeko. And he was just 1-for-1, connecting for just his second 3-pointer of the season for a 49-34 lead with 7:36 to play.
Everyone else struggled, especially from beyond the 3-point arc. Malik Story was 1-for-9 on threes and Kevin Panzer, Burris and Jerry Evans were all 0-for-3. The Pack, which was averaging 6.4 successful 3-pointers a game, tied its season low with two (they were 2-of-16 in the season opener at UC Irvine).
"This is a very good teaching game for us," Carter said. "There will be nights when you don't shoot the ball but there's no reason why you can't be good on defense every night."
The Wolf Pack has now won three straight to improve to 7-4.
"It's always nice to win three in a row," said Burton, who led the Pack with 14 points. "But we can't get complacent."
The win over the Dons won't earn the Pack any style points.
San Francisco, which beat St. John's on Dec. 4 and is now 5-3, took a 27-26 halftime lead on the strength of 50 percent (12-of-24) shooting. The Pack had taken a 14-11 lead on a 3-pointer by Story with 14:31 to go in the opening half but the Dons got a pair of free throws by Tao Xu and a jumper by Mark Tollefsen in the final two minutes to take a slim lead at the intermission.
The teams combined for a mere eight points in a stretch of 8:16 at one point of the first half. The Pack, leading 14-13, scored just two points over the next 6:34 but found itself trailing just 17-16.
Points were definitely hard to come by the entire game.
Evans, who had nine points and six rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench, hit a jumper for an 18-17 lead with 7:20 to go in the first half. Story had a lay-up off a feed from Burton for a 20-19 lead and Panzer had a dunk off a pass from Huff for a 22-19 lead with 4:22 to go.
"The key was just keeping our confidence," Burton said.
The Pack was just 1-of-15 from 3-point range in the first half. They missed their first three and last 11. They missed all eight of their 3-pointers in the final 6:29 of the first half.
"When you shoot like that it's tough to win but that's why you need to play defense," said Burris, who had 11 points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes.
The Dons, who turned the ball over 18 times, clearly couldn't handle the Pack defense in the second half. San Francisco shot just 19 percent (5-of-26) over the final 20 minutes. At one point they came within one second of going 10 minutes without a successful field goal. They cut the Pack lead to 32-30 on a lay-up by Cody Doolin with 16:50 to go and the next field goal they made (a 3-pointer by Avry Holmes) sliced the Pack lead to 49-38 with 6:51 to play.
The Dons, though, found themselves within striking distance of the Pack with 66 seconds to play.
The Pack, which led by as much as 15 (49-34 with 7:36 to play), saw its lead shrink to just 54-51 after a lay-up by Tim Derksen with 1:06 to play.
That was as close as San Francisco would get, however, as Burton, Evans and Burris combined for five free throws in the final 58 seconds. The Dons missed their last three shots, committed four fouls and turned the ball over twice in the final minute.
"We just wanted to stay aggressive on defense the whole game," Burris said.
The Wolf Pack out-rebounded the Dons 45-30 and has now out-rebounded its last two opponents (they beat Cal Poly 69-56 on Tuesday) by a margin of 92-61. Eight Wolf Pack players, led by Burris and Panzer with seven each, had between three and seven boards against the Dons.
"Rebounding and defense were the key to victory," Carter said.
The Dons, who still lead the series with the Wolf Pack 46-31, haven't beaten the Pack since Nov. 21, 1999 (a 78-73 win at Lawlor). The schools, who faced each other 64 times from 1914-1979, had not met since a Wolf Pack victory (64-61) on Nov. 26, 2002. At one point in the rivalry, from 1963 through 1977, San Francisco beat the Pack 17 consecutive times.
"Winning games like this are important for your confidence," said Carter, whose Wolf Pack is now 6-1 at home this year and 22-3 over the last two seasons. "We didn't have a big lead but we kept the lead and made plays to keep the lead. That's a sign of maturity."
The three-game winning streak gives the Pack a 3-1 record since Carter made two changes (inserting Burris and Huff) to his starting lineup.
"The guys are getting more comfortable," Carter said. "They know when they are going to play now. And next week (the Pack doesn't play again until Friday at home against Cal State San Marcos) will benefit us because we'll get four more days of practice."