LAS CRUCES, N.M. - Nevada women's basketball coach Kim Gervasoni despises the zone defense. In fact, she contends she doesn't spend any practice time on it.
Gervasoni, however, was smart enough to realize that if she stayed in a man-to-man defense the Pack would lose the game because Utah State's Taylor Richards was shredding the Wolf Pack.
Gervasoni made the switch, and the Aggies went scoreless for the final 5 minutes 45 seconds, and Jessica Preslar converted a lay-up with 31.3 seconds left to give Nevada a thrilling 61-60 come-from-behind win in Wednesday night's WAC quarterfinals at the Pan American Center.
Nevada, which faced an 11-point deficit three times in the second half, improved to 17-13, and will play host New Mexico State Friday at 1:30 p.m. in a semifinal game.
"The one thing I told the girls and from our experiences is play until you hear the buzzer and stick with it," Gervasoni said. "We made the big plays tonight when we needed to. We did a good job of keeping it close even though we had a rough defensive night.
"I believe our zone upset Utah State. It got them out of their rhythm and made them stand around. We don't run a zone, we don't even really practice a zone, but our kids believed in what we were saying and as we ran it some more, they felt the shift in momentum."
The momentum shift actually started early in the second half when Nevada went on a 13-3 run to slice Utah State's deficit to 52-50 with 11:33 remaining. Brandi Fitzgerald scored four of her eight points in that span.
Utah State bounced right back with six straight points, three on a three-point play by Richards (17 points), for a 58-50 advantage.
Traci Graham, who suffered through a 2-for-13 shooting night, drained a 3-pointer to make it 58-53 with 8:16 left. After the second of back-to-back turnovers, Mikail Price converted a three-point play to cut the deficit to 58-56.
On the next two Nevada possessions, Graham missed from the field, but it didn't cost Nevada because Utah State turned the ball over. Utah State turned the ball over 22 times which led to 21 Nevada points on the night.
Utah State's Brittany Phillips, who finished with 15 points, scored on a drive for a four-point lead with 5:45 left.
Little did the Aggies know that they had scored their last points of the game.
Utah State missed shots on its next two possessions, and Dellena Criner, who led Nevada with 23 points, was fouled going to the basket. She hit both free throws, cutting the lead to 60-58 with 3:47 remaining.
The next 2 1/2 minutes was a combination of turnovers and missed shots by both teams. Neither team was able to seize control.
In a four-turnover sequence, Utah State missed a shot and turned the ball over three times. Nevada cashed in on the third miscue when Criner was fouled with 1:10 to go.
Criner made the first, but missed the second. A scramble ensued for the loose ball and a jump ball was called. The Aggies had the possession arrow, but turned the ball over when Richards was called for traveling with 1:07 to go. That set the stage for Preslar's go-ahead basket with 31.3 left.
"Tonight she (Preslar) was our go-to player," Gervasoni said. "She wanted the ball at the end when the game was close and proved herself. Normally she would settle for fade, but Jess went right under her (Jenny Gross)."
Nevada had just three team fouls at that point, which turned out to be a blessing. Graham fouled with 16.5 left. The Aggies took a timeout when they couldn't inbound the ball.
Brandi Fitzgerald slapped the ball away, and it ended up being a jump ball, but Nevada had the possession arrow. USU fouled Graham, but she missed the front end of a one-and one situation with 8.5 left. Nevada would take two more fouls, taking the clock down to 2.3.
Danyelle Snelgro was unable to get the ball past half-court, and Nevada had won its first tournament game for the third year in a row.
"It's heartbreaking to lose like we did," Utah State coach Raegan Pebley said. "The youth of our team showed tonight, and you could tell the girls felt some pressure.
"Our girls tightened up and didn't seem to have confidence when Nevada changed to a zone, especially because they never play zone and their coach doesn't really even like the zone. We've seen zones before, but tonight we just rushed ourselves. We didn't knock down shots when we needed to knock them down either."
Next up is New Mexico State, which split two games with the Wolf Pack this year.
"It's very important that we come out strong and play strong," Criner said. "We need to keep the momentum flowing throughout the whole game and play two strong halves."
Notes: Criner had four steals giving her 83 for the season, a new Nevada record ... Nevada shot just 33.8 from the floor, including a horrid 4-for-20 from beyond the 3-point arc ... Fitzgerald led Nevada with seven rebounds and Preslar added six... Gross had nine points and 13 rebounds for the Aggies.