By DARRELL MOODY
Nevada Appeal News Service
RENO - University of Nevada is in uncharted territory, and the Wolf Pack are holding up just fine.
Nevada is one win and one UTEP loss away from a share of its first ever Western Athletic Conference basketball title after knocking off Hawai'i 77-64 Thursday night before a crowd of 10,153 at Lawlor Events Center.
The Wolf Pack improved to 19-8 overall and 12-5 in conference heading into the regular-season finale against San Jose State Saturday at 7:05 p.m. Hawai'i dropped to 11-6 in conference and 19-9 overall.
"That's the hardest thing to do when you haven't won at an elite level; you haven't won a championship and you're picked to win," coach Trent Johnson said. "They've shown up every day and done a good job of being aggressive and competitive. They've done a good job of dealing with the pressure. It speaks volumes to these kids.
"They know how I am. We're not satisfied. We won one more game than we did last year, and we won one more conference game than we did last year. This was a good game; a good win. Hawaii is a good team."
This one was won at the defensive end of the floor, and in the first half. Playing one of its best defensive halves of the season, Nevada held the Rainbows, who shot 22.2 from the floor, to a mere 16 points en route to a 31-16 advantage.
"Obviously that was one of the best we've put up," said point guard Todd Okeson, who scored 18 points, 16 of those in the second half. "We figured out how to play defense. If we can do that for 40 minutes, we're going to be tough."
Michael Kuebler, Hawai'i's top scorer, was held to three points in that span thanks to the defensive work of Gary Hill-Thomas.
"The first half started OK," Hawai'i coach Riley Wallace said. "We just didn't score. We were getting some open looks at the basket."
Despite Hawai'i's woes from the floor, Nevada only led 18-14 with 8:21 left in the half before going on a 13-2 run to end the first half, as the Rainbows mustered just one field goal in the final eight-plus minutes.
Jermaine Washington (7 points, 7 rebounds) started the surge with a putback, as he was falling to the ground. Kevinn Pinkney (9 points, 8 rebounds) scored on a layup and a hook shot, and Washington scored from the paint to make it 26-14.
After a layup by Hawaii's Logan Lee cut the lead to 26-16, Washington knocked down a free throw, Hill-Thomas scored on a floater and Kirk Snyder (23 points) scored with less than a second left after Washington had grabbed an offensive rebound to keep the possession alive.
It may have been Washington's best all-around game of the season. He made all three of his field-goal attempts, dished out three assists and pulled down six offensive rebounds.
"Jermaine Washington was huge," Johnson said. "He has energy, quickness to the ball and he's willing to be so unselfish. He's always ready to play. He understands his role. He's like a lot of guys on this team."
Hawai'i wasn't going to lay down and go away, and the Rainbows proved that with a nice 13-5 run to open the second half, whittling the Nevada lead to 36-29. Kuebler drained a three ball and Phil Martin had two buckets to lead the visitors.
"I think we got a little lazy on defense," said freshman center Nick Fazekas, who finished with 11 points and seven rebounds. "They got some easy baskets."
Johnson felt it was Hawaii just getting its act together.
"They're good," he said. "We were playing a good team. I don't want to say we had a breakdown. They had a couple of transition baskets where we could have done a better job of getting back on."
Nevada pulled together an 8-0 run to increase its lead to 51-34 with 10:26 left, as Snyder had two slams and Okeson a trey. Kuebler, who had 14 of his 17 points in the second half, and Jeff Blackett combined for 11 of Hawai'i's next 13 points to cut the lead to 59-50 with 6:46 remaining.
That's when Okeson took charge. He scored on two free throws and then drove the length of the floor for a layup to make it 65-56. He later knocked down two foul shots to make it 69-60 with 4:06 left.
"That (Okeson's layup) was the turning point," Wallace said after the game. "He took us apart at the end of the game. He had that layup and the free throws."
The Wolf Pack also got a big lift from Snyder, who scored 15 second-half points. The Nevada junior was a bit put off when it was suggested he'd broken out of a shooting slump. Three of his second-half scores came on rim-ripping dunks.
"I wasn't having shooting problems," he said. "It's just basketball. Just how the ball hops. Sometimes you make them and sometimes you don't. There's no problem."
That spells bad news for the rest of the WAC teams.