By DARRELL MOODY
Appeal Staff Writer
FRESNO - Todd Okeson knew an early exit from the WAC tournament meant going back to class, and he wanted no part of that.
Okeson made sure the Wolf Pack stayed around with one of his best efforts of the season, scoring 18 points, pulling down eight rebounds and dishing out three assists in Nevada's 75-60 win over SMU in the quarterfinals Thursday afternoon at the Save Mart Center.
Nevada, 21-8, advances to today's semifinal game against Rice at 6 p.m.
"I think the difference for us was the play of Todd Okeson," Nevada coach Trent Johnson said. "He was able to keep his poise and did the little things we needed to help run our offense. He's one of the best at running the team and hitting the open shot."
And, he downright killed SMU, according to Robert Lineburg, the Mustangs' interim coach.
"Our plan going in was to do a jood job on Nick Fazekas and Todd Okeson, and we could be right there and compete," Lineburg said. "Thirty-two between them is not good. Todd took big shots and made them. He's a good player and plays with a lot of heart."
Ten of Okeson's points came in the second half, all in the final nine minutes which enabled the Wolf Pack to keep SMU at bay. Fazekas scored 14 on only eight shots, snapping out of a four-game shooting slump which saw him hit only 13 of 33 field-goal attempts.
"A lot of people asked if I had the flu," said Fazekas. "I didn't have the flu, I just wasn't playing well. I had to come out and show people I hadn't hit the wall."
Okeson's three ball with 9:17 left started the 10-0 surge and gave Nevada a 56-48 lead. Neither team scored for the next two minutes until Kirk Snyder (22 points, 9 rebounds, 7 turnovers) threw down a dunk to get the lead back up 10. After Snyder drained two foul shots, Okeson drained another trey to make it 63-48 with 4:55 left.
The Mustangs never got closer than nine the rest of the way, as they couldn't come close to matching their first-half 47 percent effort from the field.
The second half was one big struggle for SMU (12-18), which managed only 25 points on a 6-for-23 effort. Bryan Hopkins, who burned the Wolf Pack for 16 first-half points, was 1-for-8 from the floor in the second half, and took some questionable shots at times. He finished with 22 points.
"We usually start out well early and go through a lull in the middle of the game, but we always pick it up on the defensive end during the second half," Okeson said.
"I thought defensively Nevada was outstanding," the SMU interim coach said. "We got away from some of the things we have had success with recently. I thought they pressured us very well, played sound transition defense and finished the sequence with the ability to rebound. They defend the dribble really well."
"Some of my shots weren't falling, and I think that took a toll on me, along with the collision," said Hopkins, who lauded the Wolf Pack's defensive effort. "Nevada is one of the tougher defenses we've faced. They pressure the ball and took away some of the wing passes we make."
Two nice first-half runs enabled Nevada to take leads of eight and 10 points. A 11-2 run, keyed by Okeson's back-to-back three-pointers gave the Wolf Pack a 22-14 lead, wiping out SMU's slim 12-11 lead. Okeson finished 4-for-6 from beyond the arc.
SMU stayed within striking distance the rest of the half. A 7-3 burst, led by Snyder, Marcelus Kemp and Jermaine Washington, enabled Nevada to stretch the lead to 36-26 with 3:24 left. The lead stayed at 10 until Hopkins hit a falling-down three from the left corner to spark a 7-0 run, cutting the lead to 38-35 at the half.
"It's not just us, he lights up a lot of people," Okeson said. "He scores in spurts. He showed that tonight, and he got frustrated with teammates."
The Wolf Pack, namely Snyder, got a little sloppy in the early portion of the second half with some careless passing. Fortunately for Nevada, the Mustangs didn't take advantage of it.
For all the things that Snyder did wrong, he did some good things, too.
With the game tied at 42, Snyder knocked down a three with 15:18 left and then tipped in a missed shot for a 47-42 lead.
"I thought he was (frustrated)," Lineburg said. "Like any good player, he came back and made big play after big play. He's a gifted enough athlete to make a mistake and make a play right after that. There's not a lot of guys that can do that."
Devon Perason cut the lead to 47-45 with a three-pointer, but two quick layups by Fazekas got the lead back up to six, 51-45. After a free throw by Eric Castro, Snyder scored on another tip, setting the stage for the aforementioned 10-0 run.
"We were not at our best, but managed to find a way to win," Johnson said. "The bottom line is that our guys came ready to play this afternoon."
In fact, the Mustangs scored only 26 second-half points