RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team refuses to lose in 2014.
The surging Wolf Pack extended its winning streak to four games Saturday with a 62-54 victory over the Utah State Aggies in front of a crowd of 6,142 at Lawlor Events Center. All four victories have come in the new year, lifting the Pack to 9-8 overall and in first place in the Mountain West Conference at 4-0.
“I really noticed a change in our confidence once the Mountain West games started,” said coach David Carter, whose Wolf Pack has already won more games in the Mountain West than it did all last season when it finished 3-13 in league play.
The Wolf Pack opened Mountain West play on New Year’s Day with a victory at San Jose State. That was followed by league wins over Wyoming, UNLV and now Utah State.
“We’re getting more and more confidence as the season goes on,” said junior forward Cole Huff, who scored a team high 16 points against Utah State thanks to four 3-pointers.
“Confidence builds with every win,” Carter said.
That confidence was most noticeable on defense against Utah State. The Aggies, playing in their first season in the Mountain West after coming over from the Western Athletic Conference, entered Saturday’s game as the conference’s leader in field goal percentage (.505) and 3-point shooting (.488).
The Wolf Pack defense forced Utah State into its worst shooting night of the season, holding the Aggies to just .313 from the floor (21-of-67) and .125 (2-of-16) from 3-point range.
“We really locked in defensively,” Pack point guard Deonte Burton said. “Granted, they missed some open looks but you have to credit our defense. When they came off screens, we were there. We really locked in.”
The Aggies missed all nine of their 3-pointers and were just 11-of-38 (29 percent) from the floor in the second half.
“Our defense was outstanding,” Carter said.
A huge part of the Pack’s defense, once again, was 6-foot-9 center A.J. West. The junior helped hold Utah State’s 6-foot-10 center Jarred Shaw to 7-of-20 shooting (19 points).
“I tried to get under his skin a little bit,” smiled West. “I really wanted to block his shot.”
West never did block one of Shaw’s shots but he did reject three Utah State shots. Shaw also missed a half dozen lay-ups thanks to West’s defense.
“A.J.’s length and strength bothered him a little bit,” Carter said.
The Wolf Pack defense also had five steals, three by Burton.
“We’re just communicating real well on defense,” said Burton, who also contributed 14 points and five assists. “Everyone is holding each other accountable and nobody wants to be the one who makes a mistake.”
West, who had 11 points and seven rebounds, set the tone early, scoring the first six Wolf Pack points on two lay-ups and a dunk. Two of the baskets came off of offensive rebounds.
“He made his presence known right away,” Carter said.
The Pack went on an 8-0 run, thanks to a pair of West blocks, to take a 12-6 lead eight minutes into the game. Huff hit a pair of threes as the Pack went up 23-15 with eight minutes left in the first half. Perez later pulled down a rebound and went the length of the floor for a dunk and a 27-19 lead with 4:44 to go.
Utah State then called a timeout and promptly fought its way back into the game. The Aggies went on a 9-0 run to take a 28-27 lead as Spencer Butterfield (seven points) hit a 3-pointer, Shaw connected on a short jumper in the lane and also had a pair of free throws.
“We knew they were going inside to Shaw,” Carter said.
That 28-27 lead, though, was the last time the Aggies were in front.
The Pack took control of the game over the final 67 seconds of the first half and the first 5:34 of the second half, going on an 18-2 run to take a 45-30 lead. After taking a 32-28 halftime lead on a 3-pointer by Burton with 43 seconds to go before the break, the Pack came out and dominated the first five-plus minutes of the second half.
Jerry Evans connected on a short jumper in the lane for a 40-30 lead with 16:32 left in the game. Huff drained a 3-pointer for a 43-30 lead with 15:02 left and West had an offensive rebound and a lay-up for a 45-30 advantage.
The closest Utah State would come the rest of the way was six (56-50) after a lay-up by Butterfield with 4:09 to play. Huff, though, all but ended the Aggies’ comeback hopes with a 3-pointer to give the Pack a 59-50 lead with 2:51 to go. Burton also hit a key jumper in the lane for a 61-52 lead with 1:57 left as Utah State scored just four points in the final four minutes and made just two of its final 10 shots.
Huff was 4-of-7 on 3-pointers and had six rebounds.
“Coming into college I knew I could shoot,” said Huff, who has made nine of his last 17 3-pointers over the last three games. “Last year it might not have looked like that (he made just 11-of-43 threes) but I always had confidence in my shot.”
The Wolf Pack has now won three games in a row against Utah State. The Aggies fell to 11-4 overall and 1-2 in Mountain West play.
“They are kind of going through what we went through last year,” said Carter of the Pack’s first year in the Mountain West last season. “It’s definitely a learning experience. In the WAC you could count on going on the road and getting victories because the venues weren’t that tough. In this league it’s really a challenge to go on the road. Utah State will still win games because they still have a great homecourt advantage. But winning on the road is tough in this league.”
The Wolf Pack, which has won five of its last six games after a 4-7 start and is finally back to .500 (4-4) at home, will host Boise State at Lawlor Events Center on Tuesday (7:05 p.m.).
“We can’t just celebrate one victory,” Carter said. “The games come fast. You have to move on to the next one.”