RENO - With a three-point lead and Utah State already in foul trouble midway through the second half, thoughts of the Nevada men's basketball team pulling off the biggest upset in the Big West this season began crossing Pack fans' minds Thursday night.
But Utah State, the only undefeated team in the Big West, quickly put any hope of a Nevada upset to rest with a 14-4 run that the Pack would never answer. The Aggies (11-0, 20-5) went on to win the game 62-53 to become the first Eastern Division team to qualify for the Big West Tournament, set for March 9-11 in Lawlor Events Center.
Utah State's defense took over in the game's final 13 minutes, limiting Nevada to just two baskets from the field. The Pack did make 13 free throws during that stretch to stay close to the Aggies, but Nevada could never deliver the key 3-pointer or clutch hoop that could have swung the game's momentum back into its favor.
"It was a grind-out game," said Utah State coach Stew Morrill, who played for Galena assistant coach Adrian Buoncristiani at Gonzaga in the early 1970s. "Now that we've had some road success, we don't panic. We stepped up and defended well for a stretch."
The one Nevada player the Aggie defense keyed on and stopped all night was freshman guard Terrance Green, who had been averaging 18.8 points per game entering Thursday's contest. Amazingly, Green took only two shots from the field in the game; he finished with seven points on one field goal and five free throws.
"I can't imagine only taking two shots," Green said. "I'm not going to say it was the defense, maybe my head wasn't in it."
Morrill said the Aggies often altered their defense to keep Green off balance.
"We shifted from zone to man and didn't allow him to get in a rhythm," said Morrill, whose team can tie the Aggies' best start in school history on Saturday if it beats Pacific. "He's tentative right now."
Mired in a five-game losing streak, the Pack (3-8, 5-17) can't afford another Big West loss if it hopes to play in the conference tourney. Nevada has four games remaining on its schedule, including a meeting with Western Division leader Long Beach State.
Green became emotional when discussing Nevada's postseason hopes.
"There is a huge sense of desperation," Green said. "Whatever we need to do, we need to do it fast."
Nevada coach Trent Johnson, not one to overestimate the talent on his own team, didn't sound surprised by the outcome of the game.
"There's a reason why Utah State has won 20 games, and there's a reason why they're undefeated in this league, and I can't fault my kids for that," Johnson said. "When the last game is played - whenever it is - I just want our guys to be playing as hard as they can and execute."
With Green held in check, Nevada's biggest offensive threat became outside shooter Donny Guerinoni. He scored a team-high 14 points, including three 3-pointers.
Reed High graduate Matt Ochs played all 40 minutes of the game for Nevada. He scored 10 points and was given the literally huge task of trying to stop Utah State's 6-6, 250-pound forward Shawn Daniels.
"Utah State knows how to win when it's crucial," Ochs said. "Everyone on their team is confident in their ability. They executed and made shots, and that's why they won the game."
Daniels led Utah State with 15 points and Bernard Rock added 12.
After trailing 31-25 at halftime, Nevada started the second half with an 11-2 run that culminated with a Guerinoni 3-pointer that gave the Pack a 36-33 lead with 14:58 remaining in the game. But from that point on, the Aggie defense was tremendous, forcing Nevada to keep the ball on its perimeter.
Subsequently, when Guerinoni's 3-pointers stopped dropping and Green didn't look to shoot from the outside, Nevada was left in an offensive slump and could only watch as Utah State gradually pulled away for the win.