RENO - Nevada coach Mark Fox played judge and jury. He convicted himself of a poor coaching performance.
Fox took the blame for Nevada's 83-80 heart-stopping overtime loss to UTEP Wednesday night before a crowd of 7,394 at Lawlor Events Center in a battle of Western Athletic Conference unbeatens.
The game was tied 70-all after regulation, and UTEP, thanks to nine points by Omar Thomas, outscored Nevada 13-10 in the extra period, sending Nevada, which battled back from a 24-point first-half deficit, to defeat for only the second time in the last 23 games at Lawlor.
The overtime was reminiscent of the last 10 minutes of the contest. The teams traded baskets throughout the extra period.
Thomas, who scored a team-high 28, gave the Miners their first lead in overtime, 75-74, with a three-pointer. Nick Fazekas, who led all scorers with 29, scored from the baseline to give the Wolf Pack a 76-75 lead. John Tofi regained the lead for UTEP, 77-76, with 2:20 left only to see Fazekas score on a putback to make it 78-77 with 2:01 remaining. Thomas and Fazekas drained two foul shots apiece, as Nevada clung to an 80-79 lead with 1:33 left.
Thomas gave UTEP its final lead of the game at 81-80 with 1:02 left. Fazekas missed a three, and Ayala was quickly fouled. He hit both shots for an 83-80 lead. Fazekas got a three-point shot up with about four seconds left which bounced off the iron. Seth Taylor lofted up another three-pointer which was about two feet short.
The loss also snapped a seven-game win streak for Nevada, which fell to 11-4 overall and 4-1 in conference play. UTEP extended its winning streak to 10 games, improving to 14-2 and 4-0, respectively.
"I give all the credit to UTEP," Fox said. "They made a lot of plays to win the game. I give all the blame to me. The kids were flat, and that is my responsibility. It hurts because I lost the game."
Fox also talked about his first-half technical, but really in an 83-80 game that was of little consequence. It was his decision at the end of regulation that had a much bigger impact than his first-half technical.
Nevada led 70-67 with 22 seconds left. The Wolf Pack could have fouled, which would have left it with a one-point lead and the ball. Fox opted not to do that, and Fili Rivera (23 points) drained a three-pointer over Kyle Shiloh with three seconds left to send the game into overtime.
"We were in the exact same situation against Hawaii," Fox said. "We didn't do it, and their guy missed. In hindsight... He's (Rivera) a great player. I thought if we didn't foul we would win."
a"He (coach Fox) said he'd done it (foul) in the past and that it had backfired on him," Fazekas said when asked if fouling a UTEP player had come up in conversation during Nevada's timeout after it had taken a three-point shot. "You can't blame it on that. Rivera ended up making a pretty lucky shot."
UTEP coach Doc Sadler defended Fox's decision, and he also admitted that the final shot was designed to go to Miguel Ayala, the team's best three-point shooter.
"Fili's shot is one that he's not going to make that shot (more than) one out of 50 times," Sadler said. "Obviously Mark's plan was don't foul in that situation. We were actually trying to set a back screen for Ayala."
The game was huge for the Miners. They had never won at Lawlor, and with the tournament being held in Reno the next two years, the Miners might have a little psychological advantage come March.
"This was a huge game for us," Sadler said. "We took a severe whipping here last year; 29 points I think."
While this loss hurts, Fox had to be impressed with the resilience of his team.
UTEP, which hit 7 of its first 9 shots from the floor, built a 21-4 lead seven minutes into the game. Thomas scored eight of his 12 first-half points in that span.
Taking a page from Hawai'i's book, the Miners pressured the perimeter and sagged in on Fazekas whenever the ball was on his side of the court. To make matters worse, Kevinn Pinkney picked up two quick fouls and was ineffective with no points and two rebounds in 15 minutes.
"We were just terrible at both ends (early)," Fox said. "UTEP was very good defensively."
The lead eventually climbed to 24 (39-15), and it appeared the Wolf Pack was headed to another embarrassing loss on ESPN2, a la the game against Kansas back in November.
"We didn't come ready to play," admitted Fazekas. "We dug ourselves a big hole. We did dig ourselves out and gave ourselves a chance to win."
That was surprising because Nevada had come off two road wins at Louisiana Tech and SMU.
From that point on, Nevada went on an incredible 39-8 run, including a 15-0 half-ending run which cut UTEP's lead to 39-30.
Mo Charlo, who tied a career-high with 19 points keyed the half-ending burst, scoring eight of his 10 first-half points in that stretch.
"I had a different mindset," Charlo said. "I was trying to get to the foul line; trying to get to the basket."
Fazekas started the surge with a bucket from inside, and Charlo hit a three-pointer and a lean-in jump shot to make it 39-22 with 3:30 left. Fazekas hit again from the baseline after a UTEP turnover, and after Giovanni St. Amant missed a layup, Shiloh drained a three-pointer to slice the lead to 39-27 with 1:47 left. Charlo hit three foul shots in the last 1:09, trimming the lead to nine.
Nevada continued to play well early in the second half, going on a 13-0 run to finally overtake the Miners 43-42 on two free throws by Ramon Sessions with 17:02 left. The game was tied at 45-all, but Fazekas led a 9-2 run for a 54-47 Nevada lead. UTEP scored seven straight of its own, tying the game at 54 with 10:09 left.
"We started doing fundamental things better," Fox said. "We were 6 of 12 in transition."
Charlo gave Nevada a 68-67 lead with 44 seconds left on a lean-in shot from the baseline. Rivera, an 87 percent foul shooter, missed the front end of a one-and-one situation. Pinkney drained two foul shots with 22 seconds left, setting the stage for Rivera's heartbreaking shot.
Contact Darrell Moody at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1281.