The Nevada Wolf Pack men's basketball team closed out its rollercoaster non-conference schedule in style Monday night.
"This game was the perfect game to prepare us for our conference games," Wolf Pack point guard Armon Johnson said after a 78-69 victory over the Portland Pilots in front of 5,827 fans at Lawlor Events Center. "It was a great win. Any time we win a game it's a great win."
Some of those victories, obviously, have been greater than others during the first 13 games (8-5) of the season. But the Pack, winners of six of their last seven games, will clearly go into Western Athletic Conference play (Jan. 2 at Louisiana Tech) on a roll.
"That team (Portland) beat UCLA this year, they beat Minnesota, so we had a lot of respect for them," said sophomore Luke Babbitt, who scored 22 points.
Portland (7-5), which was ranked No. 25 in the country in the last week of November, held a 31-25 lead with 4:24 to go in the first half. Ethan Niedermeyer keyed the Pilots' advantage, hitting three 3-pointers.
"They played a lot of zone on defense and we struggled with that at the beginning," said Pack coach David Carter, whose team is now 7-0 at home this year.
All of the Wolf Pack struggles, however, ended with four minutes to go in the opening half. The Pack, with Johnson on the bench, went on an 11-0 run to close the half, stopping Portland's offense on its final four possessions.
"We started playing better defense towards the end of the half and that really helped," said senior Joey Shaw, who broke out of a 1-for-13 slump over the last five games on 3-pointers with two from long distance against Portland.
Defense and timely offense -- Babbitt and Brandon Fields hit 3-pointers - key the Pack's 11-0 run at the end of first half. Dario Hunt also had a tip-in at the halftime buzzer as the Pack took a 36-31 lead into the locker room.
"As Armon goes, we go, usually," said Babbitt, referring to the final four minutes of the first half without Johnson. "So it was a good sign for us to play so well with him on the bench. We can't expect Armon to play 40 minutes a game so we have to learn how to play without him once in a while."
The Pack, with Johnson back on the floor, extended its first half-closing run to 17-0 over the first two minutes of the second half to take a commanding 42-31 lead. Johnson, Fields and Babbitt each had lay-ups to open the second half.
"We have been starting the second half of games a little sluggishly," Carter said. "I wanted us to go out with a little more intensity and I think that caught (Portland) off guard a little."
The intensity was especially effective on the defensive end. Portland had scored 80 or more points in a game four times this year.
"The key to the whole night was our defense," said Babbitt, who had a career-high five steals. "Portland is a very balanced team. They have everything you look for. If we were going to win tonight, we knew we had to do it with defense."
The Pack has now held two teams to under 70 points (they beat Tulsa 99-68 last Wednesday) for an entire game after allowing 64 in the second half alone in a 110-104 loss to BYU last Tuesday.
"I thought we really responded well against Tulsa after the BYU game," Carter said. "That's a sign of maturity, to play well after a tough loss. I'm very happy with the progress we've shown the last two games."
Portland, which has now lost five of its last seven games after starting the season 5-0, cut the Pack's lead to just 59-53 with eight minutes to go on a pair of 3-pointers by Jared Stohl. Stohl, who comes off the bench, set the Portland school record with 10 3-pointers in an 82-52 win over Idaho on Dec. 22.
The Pack, though, never allowed the Pilots to get any closer. Johnson, who finished with 16 points, hit a short jumper for a 61-53 lead with 5:33 to go and Babbitt drained a jumper from the right corner for a 65-56 lead with 3:30 to play.
"It was an emotional game, a good test for us," Babbitt said. "This was a game both teams wanted to win. It was a resume game."
Many of the Pack's emotional outbursts were directed toward the officials. The officials, though, actually called more fouls (21-18) on Portland and awarded the Pack more free throws (27-14) but that didn't stop the Pack players from showing their displeasure with many of the calls.
"I talked to the guys about keeping their composure and not letting that stuff affect them," Carter said. "I try to get my players to feed off of me and not panic. You have to fight through that stuff on the road all the time and sometimes you even have to do it at home."
The Pack, though, did not let the officials take away their focus.
"I think that was a great sign of maturity on our part," Johnson said. "We just let our play do our talking."