RENO - First year Nevada men's basketball coach Trent Johnson stressed all year long that his only goal for the young Wolf Pack team was to - at least once this season - play competitively and be in position for a win against a good team.
Johnson's wish came true at exactly the right moment Thursday night as Nevada pulled off the biggest upset of the opening round of the Big West Men's Tournament by defeating UC Santa Barbara 85-78.
UCSB (14-14) had entered the game as the Western Division's No. 2 seed, while the Pack (9-19) had qualified as the No. 3 seed from the East.
"That's a good team," said Johnson about UCSB. "One of the things that we had talked about before we went out was that we had yet to beat a really good, respectable team. This was a good team to beat, and we are playing our best basketball."
Nevada now advances to play tournament favorite Utah State tonight at 8:30 p.m. at Lawlor Events Center. Utah State, which finished 16-0 in conference play, advanced in the tournament by defeating Pacific 64-41. A win tonight and in Saturday's Big West championship game would give the Pack an automatic NCAA Tournament bid.
"We're going to take it one game at a time," said Pack forward Richard Stirgus, who scored 15 points and pulled down 17 rebounds. "A lot of people didn't expect us to be here. But one win isn't our goal."
Nevada showed surprising composure down the stretch, hitting on 15-of-16 free throws in the game's final five minutes. Showing that he is already the Pack's go-to player, freshman guard Terrance Green was 7-from-8 from the line during that span and made a clutch jump hook with 1:57 left to give Nevada a 75-69 lead.
"Terrance Green manhandled us," said UCSB head coach Bob Williams. "He took on our two best senior defenders and made the big plays."
The freshman almost cost the Pack, though, when he committed a turnover with 38 seconds remaining and Nevada leading only 77-74. But Green hustled the length of the floor to steal the ball back from UCSB's Derrick Allen before he was subsequently fouled and sent to the line. He made both his shots to give the Pack a 79-74 lead.
Stirgus then clinched the game for Nevada on a dunk with three seconds left after a steal at midcourt by Tommy Zapata.
"The more tenacious of the two teams was going to win tonight, and Nevada was the more tenacious team," Williams said.
Green led all scorers with 27 points. Stirgus scored 15 points and pulled down 17 rebounds.
Erick Ashe led the Gauchos with 20 points.
Nevada led for most of the first quarter, but UCSB scored the final six points of the half to take a 35-32 lead at the break.
Nevada came out with a 7-0 run to start the second half and took a 39-35 lead. The Pack went on to build a 10-point lead with 5:07 remaining.
The Gauchos cut the lead to three with 1:06 left and had a chance to get a potential game-tying possession when Stirgus missed a jumper, but Green cut under the basket for the offensive rebound. The Gauchos were forced to foul Green and saw their chance to beat the Pack end as Green continued his good shooting even during the most tension-filled moments of his short collegiate career.
"I felt we came out and executed plays," Green said. "But in the same aspect, we need to prepare (for Utah State) and not celebrate too much. Our goal was to go farther than the first game, so we have to concentrate on that."