NEVADA: Wolf Pack seeks fourth straight win | NevadaAppeal.com
JOE SANTORO
For the Nevada Appeal

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NEVADA: Wolf Pack seeks fourth straight win

RENO – The Nevada Wolf Pack has a score to settle.

“I won’t say we have something to prove,” freshman point guard Deonte Burton said, recalling an 80-74 loss to the Fresno State Bulldogs on Jan. 3. “But we should have gotten that first game.”

The Wolf Pack, riding a season-high three-game winning streak, will host the Bulldogs in their first Western Athletic Conference rematch of the season Thursday night (7:35 p.m.) at Lawlor Events Center.

“We’ve learned from our mistakes,” Burton said.

The Pack, 7-13 overall and 4-3 in the WAC, committed 15 turnovers and missed 9-of-11 3-pointers in the second half in losing at Fresno three weeks ago. Trailing 72-69 with 3:09 to go, the Pack turned ice cold, missing its next five shots (four threes and a lay-up) over the next two-plus minutes.

“They played well against us at their place,” Pack coach David Carter said. “We made some turnovers that cost us and we could have played a lot better.”

Nobody on the floor that night in Fresno played better than the Pack’s Olek Czyz. The 6-foot-7 junior made his first 10 shots before missing his last two and finished with 26 points. Czyz exploited the Bulldogs inside with three dunks and five lay-ups and also connected on a pair of 3-pointers.

“We shot 50% (26-of-52) that night,” Carter said. “Our offense was efficient. Hopefully that will carry over to this game.”

Fresno State got 20 points from 6-4 junior Tim Steed, 15 from 6-10 sophomore center Greg Smith and 14 from 6-1 freshman Kevin Olekaibe off the bench in beating the Pack. Fresno State (8-10, 3-4) won the game at the free throw line, draining 24-of-32 shots (the Pack was 16-of-24).

The Bulldogs also won with defense, coming up with 11 steals (the Pack had two). Guard Garrett Johnson had four steals and 6-8 forward Nedeljko Golubovic and Olekaibe, who played at Las Vegas’ Cimarron-Memorial High School last year, each had three.

“They are a very talented team,” Carter said. “But they are young, just like we are.”

The Pack and Bulldogs each suffered big losses off of last year’s roster. The Wolf Pack lost four of its five starters and its sixth man and Fresno State lost four key players (Paul George, Sylvester Seay, Mike Ladd and Brandon Sperling).

George averaged 16.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2,2 steals a year ago and was picked 10th in the first round in last summer’s NBA draft by the Indiana Pacers (where he’s averaging 6.6 points a game). Seay, who averaged 14.2 points and 6.1 rebounds as a senior last year, is now playing in South Korea. Ladd, who had 66 3-pointers as a sophomore a year ago, transferred to Washington State (he is sitting out this year) and Sperling, a backup guard, is now playing at Humboldt State.

The Bulldogs, though, still have Smith (10.7 points, 6.9 rebounds) in the middle, Steven Shepp (6-2 sophomore) at guard and Golubovic at forward. Shepp, who averages 3.4 points a game, missed the first nine games of the year because of academic troubles. His first start was against the Pack on Jan. 3.

The Bulldogs, just 2-6 away from home this year, also added Steed (8.8 points a game) and Bennie Rhodes (4.6 points in 10.5 minutes a game) as junior college transfers, as well as Jonathan Wills (a 6-6 guard) from New Mexico (3.2 points in 18 minutes a game).

They also done a nice job of sprinkling in freshman Olekaibe (10.6 points), 6-7 Bracken Funk (6.3 points) and 6-1 Tyler Johnson (4.4 points) and sophomore Garrett Johnson (8.8 points). Golubovic has moved into the starting lineup this year and is contributing 6.7 points and 4.8 rebounds a game.

“We just have to get defensive stops,” Burton said. “That’s what we have to do better this time. We have to make it hard for them.”

The Bulldogs have made it hard for themselves this year, shooting just .412 from the field (just .286 on 3-pointers) and .587 on free throws.

“We have not shot the ball well,” Fresno State coach Steve Cleveland told the Fresno Bee recently. “And it’s made everything really hard and overshadowed some of the good things we’ve done in other areas.”

The Bulldogs beat Seattle 86-56 on Monday to break a four-game losing streak. Fresno, though, has lost four consecutive WAC games after starting league play with a three-game winning streak.

“They have had trouble scoring,” Carter said.

The Wolf Pack, coming off victories over Boise State, New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech, are seemingly starting to put its troubles behind them. That’s why Thursday’s game is more about continuing the process of growing as a team rather than avenging an earlier loss.

“It’s not about revenge,” Carter said. “You can’t take a loss away. We just need to go out and protect our home.”