Christmas finally came early for the Nevada Wolf Pack.
“It was just a pleasant surprise for us to win by more than one or two points,” Wolf Pack coach David Carter said with a smile after an 80-72 victory Sunday afternoon over the Iona Gaels.
The victory in front of 5,219 fans at Lawlor Events was the first of any kind for the Wolf Pack at home since an 83-81 win over Chattanooga on Nov. 22. It was also the first Pack victory in regulation this year by more than two points. The other Pack victory was over UC Davis by six points in overtime.
“It was nice to see that it didn’t come down to the end where we had to rely on Deonte (Burton) to make the final shot,” Carter said.
No dramatics were needed as the Pack improved to 5-7 overall and 2-3 at home. The Wolf Pack turned in one of its best defensive performances of the year, holding a team under 80 points for the first time in six games.
“It was probably our best game defensively,” said Carter, whose Wolf Pack has been allowing 81 points a game.
“The difference this game was that we got some big stops at the end of the game,” said forward Cole Huff, who had 13 points and 10 rebounds.
The Wolf Pack outscored Iona 50-34 over the final 24 minutes of the game after falling behind 38-30.
“It started with defense,” said Burton, who had a team-high 20 points and six assists while playing the full 40 minutes for the third game in a row and fourth time this year. “We got some stops and that allowed us to get out and get some easy baskets in transition.”
Iona, which lost for the third time in a row to fall to 5-5, converted 7-of-17 3-pointers in the first half to take a 42-40 lead at halftime. A.J. English had three of the 3-pointers as the Gaels took more than half their shots in the first half (17-of-31) from beyond the arc.
“It’s the game of basketball,” Huff said. “Teams are going to make shots. We just had to adjust.”
“That’s what I told (the players),” Carter said. “They will make some shots. I just wanted us to run them off the 3-point line.”
The Pack didn’t exactly run the Gaels off the 3-point line in the second half as Iona still attempted 17 threes in the second half, making five.
“I just wanted us to wear them down a little and eventually some of their shots would come up short,” Carter said.
Huff gave the Pack a 43-42 lead 14 seconds into the second half with a 3-pointer. The Pack then never trailed by more than one point the rest of the way.
“We talked about being aggressive on the offensive end,” Carter said. “When the opportunity comes you have to take advantage of it.”
Burton (20 points), Evans (18), Michael Perez (14) and Huff (13) all scored in double digits for the Pack. The Wolf Pack also made more than half (31-of-61) of its shots.
“When a lot of people are scoring it keeps the defense off balance,” Burton said. “They don’t know where the scoring is coming from.”
Iona took its final lead of the game at 53-52 on a lay-up by Sean Armand with 15 minutes to play. The Pack then dominated the final 15 minutes, outscoring the Gaels of New Rochelle, N.Y., 28-19. A quick 6-0 run gave the Pack a 63-55 lead with 11:15 left. The six points came on an acrobatic lay-up by D.J. Fenner, a lay-up by Perez off a half-court feed from Burton and a crowd-pleasing dunk by Burton.
“We were able to get stops on defense and that allowed us to get some easy baskets in transition,” Carter said.
A 3-pointer by Armand cut the Pack’s lead to just 63-61 with 8:15 to go and a free throw by David Laury sliced it to 70-67 with 4:48 left. The Gaels then proceeded to miss seven of their next eight 3-pointers over the final four minutes as the Pack put the game away.
A.J. West, making his Wolf Pack debut, scored on a lay-up for a 74-67 lead with 3:49 left. The 6-foot-9 West also drained two free throws for a 76-67 lead with 2:21 left.
West, who was granted his eligibility by the NCAA just this week, finished with four points, five rebounds and one block in 17 minutes.
“At first I kind of went out there and was playing a little nonchalant,” West said. “I knew I just had to get angry. When I get angry that’s when I play like myself.”
West, who led the nation’s junior college players with 5.1 blocks a game for Monroe College last year, got his first Wolf Pack block with 34 seconds to go on a lay-up attempt by Iona’s A.J. English. It was just one of four shots English took inside the 3-point circle on his way to a game-high 22 points.
“That was the thing that was haunting me the whole game, the thing I wanted the most,” said West of his first Division I block. “I wanted to get a block.”
The Wolf Pack, which had lost six of its last seven home games dating back to last season, just wanted a victory in the worst way.
“It was pretty big,” Burton said. “We’re going to take this win and use it as motivation.”
The Wolf Pack will next play Long Beach State on Saturday night (7:05 p.m.) at Lawlor Events Center. The Wolf Pack will get the next two days off before returning to the court for a Christmas night practice.
“This one will feel good for one or two days,” Carter said. “After that it is back to work to get ready for Long Beach State.”