RENO - The Nevada Wolf Pack men's basketball team played the role of a gracious host Saturday night at Lawlor Events Center.
"No disrespect to Wagner, but I know we can play at a higher level than that," Nevada coach David Carter said after the Wolf Pack's 74-61 victory over the Wagner Seahawks in front of 4,692 fans. "It's frustrating as a coach because I know we can play better."
The Wolf Pack, which improved to 6-4 overall and 6-0 at home, showed a lot of respect for the 1-9 Seahawks. The Pack led by as much as 18 but found their lead sliced to just 69-61 with two minutes to play.
"We still have a lot of things to learn, like not playing down to the level of our competition," said sophomore Luke Babbitt, who scored a team-high 17 points.
Babbitt, who also had seven rebounds, said the Pack can't be satisfied despite its current four-game winning streak.
"It's just a mentality," Babbitt said. "We have to fight through it. We played well at certain points but the key is to play well for 40 minutes. It's just all in our heads. To be honest, we really haven't played well for all 40 minutes of a game all season."
The Pack, which will play BYU in Las Vegas on Tuesday, was never in serious jeopardy of losing to the Staten Island, N.Y. school. Wagner's last lead was 11-9 and the last time the game was tied was 17-17 with 11 minutes to play in the first half.
The Pack, though, could never put the Seahawks way for good until Ray Kraemer drilled a 3-pointer with 1:20 to play for a 72-61 lead. Carter, though, played his reserves over the final 2:40 despite the fact that Wagner pulled within eight at 69-61.
"They need that experience," Carter said. "I didn't want to take them out right then because that would have hurt their confidence. That was really the first time this year that those guys were in that situation and I wanted them to get that experience."
The bench held the Seahawks scoreless over the final 1:59 to preserve the victory.
"That was big because we need them to contribute," senior Joey Shaw said.
The most memorable performance in the game by a Pack reserve had to be by sophomore Keith Olson. The 2007 Douglas High graduate, who had to sit out the first semester after transferring from Northern Arizona, made his Wolf Pack (and collegiate) debut, playing 12 minutes with five points and four rebounds.
"I've been waiting for that for a long time," said the 6-foot-9 Olson, who has battled back from a foot injury. "It definitely felt a lot better than I thought it would. But I've been waiting for that chance for a long, long time."
Olson made his Pack debut with 6:56 to go in the first half. He returned to the bench with 4:16 to go in the half without scoring a point or pulling down a rebound.
Carter, though, didn't waste much time getting his new center on the floor in the second half. Olson stepped back onto the court with 17:16 to go in the game and the Pack leading just 38-34. The 260-pounder scored his first points since the 2007 high school Northern 4A regional title game just 68 seconds later, giving the Pack a 42-34 lead with a layup off a pass from Shaw.
"I can't tell you how that felt," Olson said. "When I ran down the court after making that basket I just felt like I had the biggest smile on my face I could imagine."
Olson's performance also made his coach smile.
"Going into the game I didn't think I'd play him that much," said Carter of Olson's 12-minute workload. "But he played real well, especially considering he hasn't played in over a year (actually 33 months). When he was out there we didn't miss a beat."
When Olson was on the floor the Wolf Pack outscored the Seahawks 21-11.
"I had a lot of confidence to put him back in (in the second half)," Carter said. "He gave us a presence inside. He can catch the ball real well, he has good hands, and he played very good defense."
Olson said he got over his first-game jitters quickly.
"As soon as I touched the ball, it felt like basketball to me, just like the last time I played," he said.
The Wolf Pack, which will play BYU on Tuesday and either Nebraska or Tulsa on Wednesday in the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, will return home to face Portland on Dec. 28.
"I don't want to go on the road," joked Carter, referring to the Pack's 0-4 record away from Lawlor Events Center. "I wish we could play all our games at home."
Carter, though, likes the way his team took care of business on its four-game homestand, beating Fresno Pacific, South Dakota State, Eastern Washington and Wagner. The Pack has won four in a row for the first time since it won five in a row Feb. 28 through March 13 last season.
"It's a good streak for us," Carter said. "Anytime you can do that, it builds confidence."