RENO - With Nevada's 62-59 win over Boise State on Thursday, the start date for the Big West Tournament was essentially moved up five days for the Wolf Pack men's basketball team.
That's because a Nevada (5-10, 7-19) win at home on Saturday against Idaho - combined with a Boise State loss at Utah State - would give the Pack an Eastern Division berth for the Big West Tournament, scheduled for Lawlor Events Center on March 9-11.
In fact, if that scenario occurs, the Pack would finish as the division's No. 3 seed, and its probable opening-round opponent in the tourney would be UC-Santa Barbara.
Nevada coach Trent Johnson was happy that his players had put themselves in position for postseason play, but he wasn't getting out his credit card just yet to buy blocks of Big West Tourney tickets.
"We're still a long ways from where we need to be," Johnson said. "Idaho is going to come in here at their very best. Hopefully we'll be in the situation Saturday where we can come out and sustain a good defensive effort and be in the game at the end."
Nevada seniors Tommy Zapata and Calvin Criddle played as if they were set on extending their seasons into the Big West tourney, as Zapata scored a career-high 21 points and Criddle played outstanding defense, limiting Bronco forward Abe Jackson, who had scored in double digits for 20 straight games, to just five points.
Johnson complimented both his seniors, sounding as if this was the type of game he had expected out of Zapata all season long. Zapata entered Thursday's game averaging just 4.5 points per game.
"I thought both seniors gave us a lift," Johnson said. "The difference was we had a guy step up and make some plays who hasn't done it all year. Hopefully he'll do the same thing on Saturday. That would be a nice way for him to end his senior year, which has been up-and-down, on a positive note."
Nevada got off to one of its best starts of the season against the Broncos, as the Pack built a 14-3 lead in the game's first six minutes. The highlight of the half - and perhaps the Pack's entire season - came at the conclusion of the first half, as Joao Santos picked up a loose ball at the top of the Boise State key, took two dribbles and launched a 50-footer that swished through the net for a 3-pointer that gave Nevada a 28-22 halftime lead.
Nevada had a nine-point lead early in the second, but Boise State began chipping away until it finally tied the game at 45 with just over eight minutes remaining.
While the Pack stopped Jackson cold, it had trouble containing Justin Lyons in the second half. Lyons had 14 points in the half and gave the Broncos a 51-46 lead when he made two free throws with just over six minutes remaining.
Nevada rebounded, though, and scored five straight points within a minute to tie it at 51. Zapata, perhaps sensing that time was running out on his career, then hit a 3-pointer from deep in the corner to give the Pack the lead once again with just over four minutes on the clock. Nevada would never trail again.
When Adrian McCullough added a field goal and Terrance Green, who scored 13 points, hit both of his free throws, the Pack had a 62-57 lead with 19 seconds to play.
But Boise State nearly sent the game into overtime. Lyons scored an inside basket with seven seconds on the clock and the Broncos then fouled Zapata.
Zapata missed both of his free throws, giving Boise a chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer. But Scott Dauphinee's shot a the buzzer - his first shot of the game - was off the rim.
Green, Nevada's star freshman, said he was hoping the old guys on the team - Zapata and Criddle - would get the chance to entend their careers deep into the Big West Tourney with a win on Saturday.
"We need to come out ready like we did tonight," Green said. "If we win, it'll feel good, especially for the seniors. I don't want those guys to be gone yet."