SALT LAKE CITY - In the stillness of the Nevada locker room, it didn't take senior Mo Charlo long to pinpoint the reason for Nevada's disappointing early exit from the NCAA Tournament.
"We were just one step behind on defense all day," Charlo said after the Pack's 87-79 loss to Montana Thursday afternoon at the Jon M. Huntsman Center. "We didn't play good defense, and we depend on our defense to get our offense going."
This was the earliest exit in three NCAA appearances for the Pack, who finished 27-6, and they went into the tourney as a No. 5 seed, the highest in three years.
"We just had some technical breakdowns," Nevada coach Mark Fox said. "We have been rock solid defensively for the last couple of months. Today we were not, and that led to some easy baskets. That's why we played from behind the entire game."
The game was eerily similar to the Pack's 89-80 loss to Saint Mary's College. In that game, Nevada played well offensively, but couldn't put any defensive stops together.
"That's a pretty good comparison," said junior Nick Fazekas, who blocked three shots to overtake Edgar Jones for No. 1 all-time at Nevada. "It would have been a different story if we had gotten the lead. We just never got the lead."
Indeed. The 12th-seeded Grizzlies led from wire-to-wire. It's the first time all year that Nevada has never led in a game. The game was tied once at 8, but the Grizzlies went on a 9-0 run and led the rest of the way.
Credit Montana's offensive execution in the half court, especially center Andrew Strait, who scored 22 points and pulled down seven rebounds, and the backcourt duo of Kevin Criswell (18 points) and Virgil Matthews (20), who constantly beat Pack defenders on the dribble.
Montana, which shot 59 percent in the first half, finished the game at 52 percent. It was the first time in 13 games that an opponent has shot higher than 50 percent against the Pack.
The first half seemed to be a battle between the Nevada duo of Nick Fazekas (10) and Marcelus Kemp (19) against Strait and Matthews. The Nevada pair scored 29 of their team's 33 points, while Strait (14) and Matthews (11) accounted for 25 of the Grizzlies' 40 in the opening half.
Montana had an 11-point lead, 36-25, with 3:06 left. It took an 8-4 run by the Pack, which included six points by Kemp, to get the lead down to the aforementioned seven points after 20 minutes.
"I told our guys at halftime the most important thing is that we fought for 40 minutes," Montana coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "There are no moral victories to being ahead at halftime. I think the experience more than anything from last year helped us through this one."
Maybe. Maybe not.
The Grizzlies, thanks to a layup by Criswell, a 3-pointer by Jordan Hasquet and a bucket by Strait upped their lead to 49-39 with 15:28 left.
Kemp, Fazekas and Mo Charlo helped Nevada storm back.
Fazekas took a pass from Charlo and scored, and after a Montana turnover, Kemp knocked down a 3-pointer. Montana turned the ball over again on its next possession, and Charlo roared down the lane for a slam dunk, slicing the lead to 49-46, bringing the 500-plus Wolf Pack fans to their feet.
Hasquet drained a 3-pointer to make it 52-46, but Kemp drained a 3-pointer of his own to make it 52-49. Montana's Matt Dluhy misfired on the next possession, and Nevada had a chance to tie the game. The Pack got the ball into Fazekas, who got bumped and was called for traveling.
The Grizzlies went on an 8-2 run for a 60-51 lead with 8:47. Included in that was two free throws by Matt Martin after the Nevada bench (Fox) was whistled for a technical foul.
Again, Fazekas, Charlo and Kemp rallied Nevada to 63-60 with 6:52 left. Fazekas scored the first four points of the 9-3 surge and Charlo converted a difficult three-point play.
"We made our runs and they answered back," Charlo said.
"We'd close to three and they would go up six," Fazekas said. "We would cut it to three and they would go up five."
Actually this time the Griz went up 14, 79-65, thanks to an impressive 18-3 run. Stick a fork in the Pack because they were done.
"This was tough for us as a team. We're on the other side of March Madness this year. It is tough for us to take in and it was really tough for me."
Krystkowiak praised the play of Strait and the team as a whole for the upset win.
"It was a great game on his (Strait's) part," Krystkowiak said. "I can't say I believe this game would have ended up the way it ended up without him being that efficient. He was real powerful with some old-school moves to the post. To have success, you have to be able to go inside.
"There are so many emotions running through my head right now. This is just a lot bigger. That has been our message all year. I don't sit back and think about my individual stuff. I don't think our kids sit back and think about their individual accolades. We've done this together with a lot of synergy."
Not to mention good old-fashioned hustle and grit.