FRESNO, Calif. - Reports of Nevada's supposed fall from power this year turned out to be greatly exaggerated.
Picked to finish third by both the media and coaches, Nevada pounded Fresno State 76-63 Saturday night at the Save Mart Center to wrap up a share of its fifth consecutive Western Athletic Conference regular-season title.
Nevada, which posted its 20th win overall, finished in a four-way tie for the regular-season title with Boise State, New Mexico State and Utah State. All four teams finished 12-4 in conference play. The Pack will be seeded second behind Utah State in the upcoming WAC Tournament.
Certainly Nevada coach Mark Fox would have liked to have a few more victories and won outright, but he's happy with his young group.
"We haven't dominated everybody," Fox said. "We haven't cracked the national rankings like in the previous years. They are going to send a trophy to us. I'm extremely proud of the kids for that. Nobody gave us a chance."
"It feels good," senior swingman Marcelus Kemp said after scoring 25 points, 17 of them coming in the second half. "Nobody thought we could do it. We came together as a team. We got the wins we needed to get the championship."
This wasn't as easy as many expected. Nevada struggled early offensively, but shot 52 percent in the final 20 minutes, using two big runs to pull away from the Bulldogs.
Kemp and JaVale McGee, who scored 23 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, combined for 34 of Nevada's 40 second-half points.
"Our kids had a tough time early," Fox said. "They were trying too hard on offense in the first half. It was all them. You can start with Marcelus and go down the line. We were shooting too many 3s in the first half.
"We defended in the first half to a certain extent. We settled down on offense and defense the rest of the way."
Nevada held the biggest lead of the half, 18-11, with 11:42 left, but was unable to shake the Bulldogs, who got 11 straight points from Nedeljko Golubovic in the final 5-minutes 36 seconds of the first half to pull to within 36-31 at the half, which ended on a 24-foot banked 3-pointer by Brandon Fields.
"He is tough for us to defend," Fox said, referring to Glubovic. "He's a good player."
"He (Glubovic) played a great game," Fresno State point guard Kevin Bell said. "They started pushing him off the block a little (in the second half)."
Nevada had two nice runs in the opening half.
A 10-2 run led by Kemp's two baskets and 3-pointers by Armon Johnson and Lyndale Burleson gave the Pack the aforementioned seven-point lead.
Kemp struggled from the floor in the first half, going 3-for-11, including an airball.
"I was trying too hard," Kemp said. "I wanted to put them away early. I settled down in the second half and let the game come to me and the shots started to fall."
The second half belonged to Nevada, most notably Kemp and McGee. The Bulldogs were helpless to stop either player.
McGee scored nine straight Nevada points, including a slam dunk and 3-pointer in the first three-plus minutes, to lead a 10-5 run and give the Pack a 46-36 lead.
"I feel a lot better (about my game)," McGee said. "It kicked in at the end of the season. I wish it would have kicked in during the middle of the season. I felt I had to work harder in the second half."
"He's been productive on the stat sheet," Fox said. "He can play much better than he showed."
Eddie Miller, who was held to 11 points by Fields and Lyndale Burleson, scored five in a 7-0 run to slice the deficit to 46-43 with 14:32 left.
That was as close as the Bulldogs would get the rest of the way.
Nevada, sparked by Kemp, retaliated with a 13-2 run for a 59-45 lead. Kemp buried a 3-pointer, and then 31 seconds later, scored a rare four-point play. Kemp drained one from the left side and was hammered by Tyson Parker. Kemp drained the free throw.
Fresno State scored six straight points to make it 59-51, but the Pack scored eight straight points to boost the lead to 67-51. Malik Cooke scored on a putback to start the surge and McGee followed with a layup. Kemp scored four straight points to complete the surge.
"McGee had a big night," Fresno State coach Steve Cleveland said. "He hit shots pretty much from everywhere, and we all know about Marcelus Kemp. He got it (25 points) on 20 shots, but he got it done.
"We play everybody twice, and they're the only team that we had a problem matching up against."