SAN JOSE, Calif. - Thank goodness for Marcelus Kemp.
Kemp scored 33 points, one shy of his career best, to lead 15th-ranked Nick Fazekas-less Nevada to a 72-63 victory over San Jose State Thursday night at The Event Center in a Western Athletic Conference battle.
Nevada improved to 15-1 overall, winning its season-best eighth straight game. San Jose State dropped to 1-14 and 0-3. The Pack is tied for the WAC lead with New Mexico State.
Fazekas missed his first-ever game at Nevada, and he sat on the end of the bench and cheered his teammates on. His absence obviously made it a lot tougher game than expected for the Wolf Pack.
It also put the pressure of scoring more on the Pack's perimeter trio of Kemp, Kyle Shiloh and Ramon Sessions. Shiloh (12 points) finished with his second straight double-digit scoring game and Sessions had an outstanding floor game with eight points, seven rebounds and five assists. The five assists moved the junior guard past Pete Padgett and into fifth place all-time with 391.
Kemp knocked down 12 of his 23 floor shots, including 5-for-7 from beyond the 3-point arc.
"Nick is averaging 20 points a game," Kemp said. "As a team, we have to score more baskets, and I think we did that today. I don't really think about it. It's whatever comes to me."
Kemp did shoot the ball a lot, but none of his shots were out of the framework of the offense.
"He's probably a little more aggressive," Nevada coach Mark Fox said. "I want him to be that way."
Nevada wasn't at the top of its game by any stretch in the opening half, and that's because of not having Fazekas. The two previous times the Pack played without the All-American forward it was well into the game.
"Now we're afraid and we're still afraid," Nevada coach Mark Fox said. "We built a plan for this team that included Nick Fazekas. For a short period of time we can adjust. For a complete game, it's a completely different operation without him in the middle, so we did have an adjustment period.
"I wasn't worried at all offensively. There are guys that probably don't feel they get enough shots anyway."
Both Kemp and Shiloh felt that rebounding needed to be improved on, in Fazekas' absence. Good post defense also was lacking as Menelik Barbary scored 12 points in the first nine minutes to spark the Spartans to a 19-11 advantage.
Fox went to a zone shortly after the Spartans took their eight-point lead, and that plus Kemp's one-man show enabled Nevada to go on a nice roll in the final eight minutes and take a 34-32 lead.
"He (Barbary) is a good player," Fox said. "When he catches the ball in good position, he can finish. We picked up some quick fouls. That's why we went to the zone, and we stayed with it because it was working."
Kemp went 8-for-16 from the floor in the first half, including four 3-point field goals. The rest of the Pack squad went 5-for-14.
Trailing 21-14, Kemp went to the rack, was fouled and converted a three-point play. A basket by Carlton Spencer (16 points) kept the lead at six (23-17), and that set the stage for Kemp.
Kemp knocked down a 3-pointer, but Devonte Thomas answered back with a putback. Kemp scored eight straight, as Nevada regained the lead, 28-25. Jamon Hill tied the game at 28, but Denis Ikovlev untied it with his first 3-pointer to make it 31-28. Barbary scored again to make it 31-30, but Ikovlev drained another 3-pointer for a 34-30 lead. San Jose cut it to 34-32 when Julian Richardson scored on a buzzer-beating lay-up.
It didn't get any better for the Spartans in the second half, as Nevada opened with a 12-4 run to push the lead to 46-36 with 15:55 left in the game.
Sessions rattled in a 3-pointer from the left side and then Shiloh scored on a lay-up for a 39-36 lead. A Barbary slam and a bucket by Hill cut the lead to 39-36, but Kemp slipped a pass to Shiloh for a lay-up, hit a 3-pointer after a San Jose State turnover and then made a lay-up in transition.
"I think we let Kemp get too many open looks in the first half, but in the second half, the guy made some monster shots on us and what are you going to do?," SJSU coach George Nessman said. "All the players can do is be in the right position defensively and challenge the guy and make it tough on him. And, he makes shots and shots.
"They did a better job of attacking our zone in the second half. Nevada is a really efficient offensive team. They're rising to a level that our team, right now, can't match. What I like from our standpoint was all right, that occurred, but we didn't back-off."
Not for a second. Thanks to the play of Lance Holloway, Barbary and Spencer, the Spartans whittled away at Nevada's lead. The Spartans, thanks to eight quick points by Spencer, cut the lead to 68-60 with 3:02 left.
Neither team scored on the next few possessions, and then Shiloh deflected a pass, caught up to the ball and rammed it home to make it 70-60 with 1:37.
"I wasn't really anticipating it," Shiloh said. "They were just running the same play over and over and I just happen to come up with a steal."
That sealed the outcome.
"It makes it better that we survived Nick's absence," Fox said.
And, the fact that Nevada survived didn't really surprise Nessman.
"Obviously with Nevada missing Nick, they're not quite the same team," Nessman said. "I thought the team played with a lot of poise, as they always do. It's a veteran team. Clearly any team that loses an important player, it is a blow, but at the same time, Nevada is still playing solid fundamental defense."