RENO - With the game going down to the wire, they didn't panic like the Nevada teams from the past.
"Free throws were huge for the second half. Composure is important. You just have to take it one possession at a time," Nevada women's basketball coach Kim Gervasoni said.
Nevada overcame a 13-point deficit in the first half and sunk 17 of 18 free throws in the second half to beat New Mexico State, 74-70, in front of 501 fans at Lawlor Events Center.
"If we didn't respond like that, we weren't going to win," Gervasoni said about the second half when Nevada trailed 37-29. "We were slow on our rotations. I challenged them to play our defense, Nevada defense."
The Wolf Pack won its fifth home game in a row and improved to 5-1 in the Western Athletic Conference, 11-8 overall. Nevada's lone league loss came at Boise State two weeks ago.
Dellena Criner, who played most of the second half with four fouls, led Nevada with 19 points and Brandi Fitzgerald added 15, including a pair of 3-pointers. Traci Graham scored all 13 of her points in the second half before fouling out with two minutes left and Jessica Preslar rounded out the scoring with 10.
"We came out a little slow. We made a commitment in the locker room at halftime to bring up our defense intensity," said Graham, who hit 3 of 4 3-pointers in the second half.
With Graham fouled out and Criner playing the second half with four fouls, both knew the team was in good hands.
"I have a lot of confidence in my teammates," Graham said.
"We believe in our people coming off the bench and bringing in the intensity," Criner added.
Gervasoni said she didn't want to leave Criner on the bench longer than she had to.
"Typically you to have to bring them in with 5, 5 1/2 minutes left," Gervasoni said about Criner's four fouls. "I knew she would be smart and I wanted to bring her in with seven minutes left."
Sherell Neal led four Aggies (3-2 WAC, 8-9) in double figures by scoring 16 points and Anikia Jawara added 14. Both Neal and Jawara each had a double-double with Neal grabbing 11 rebounds and Jawara with 10. Monique Bribiescas scored 12 points and Hannah Spanich had 10.
Down seven with 4:47 left in the game, Nevada relied on its defense and aggressiveness on offense, resulting in a 3-pointer and two free throws from Criner and two free throws from Preslar.
"She (Gervasoni) pointed back to the board of our goals from pregame," Criner said. "She emphasized that our defense implemented our offense."
Preslar's free throws with three minutes left cut the deficit to 63-60 before Graham crossed over and pulled back for a 3-pointer. Graham appeared to steal the ball with two minutes left but was called for her fifth foul with Nevada down, 64-63.
Criner hit two more free throws to tie the game at 65 and Andrea Sitton hit the front end of a 1-and-1 to give Nevada its first lead of the game, 66-65. Preslar hit a long 2 to put Nevada ahead by three points and Fitzgerald and Criner combined for six free throws to seal the win.
Nevada travels to Fresno State on Thursday before retuning home to face Louisiana Tech on Saturday. "The WAC is such a competitive conference. They know the intensity and confidence needs to be there," Gervasoni said. "We're just going to take it one game at a time. Our system's in place and we have the talent. They have to start strong and play strong for 40 minutes and they're capable of anything. They have to be focused and prepare themselves for every game."