By JOE SANTORO
Special to the Nevada Appeal
Mark Fox felt like a proud papa Thursday night.
"We're growing up," the Wolf Pack men's basketball coach said after a grueling 77-63 Western Athletic Conference victory over the Boise State Broncos at Lawlor Events Center.
It was definitely the type of victory that could grow hair on the chest of the young Wolf Pack. Nevada led the entire game, building 16-point leads midway through the first and second half. Each 16-point lead, though, turned out to be just another opportunity for Fox to tutor his wet-behind-the-ears team.
"I felt like at times we got a little comfortable," said sophomore guard Armon Johnson, who led all scorers with 25 points. "During our timeouts coach would remind us, 'Don't get comfortable. Don't get comfortable. Boise is a good team. They can come back on us.'''
Boise State proved the Pack coach right, cutting Nevada's lead to just 59-54 with just over six minutes to play on a 3-pointer by Anthony Thomas.
"We need challenges, we need adversity, we need to experience those things to grow and mature," Fox said.
The oldest member of the Pack, senior Lyndale Burleson, then pointed his young teammates to victory. Burleson drained a 3-pointer with six minutes to play, jumpstarting Nevada on its way to a game-clinching 9-0 run. Luke Babbitt hit an 18-footer, Dario Hunt scored inside and Johnson and Babbitt added free throws to complete the run and give the Pack a 68-54 lead with three minutes to play.
"It was a tough game," said the freshman Babbitt, who followed his heroic game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer last Saturday at Louisiana Tech with 18 points and 10 rebounds against Boise. "We feel fortunate to win this one."
Fortunate? Maybe. A little older and wiser? Definitely.
"We had to step up in crunch time and we did," Johnson said.
Johnson scored 16 points in the second half and turned the ball over just once to go along with five assists.
"Armon hasn't shot the three well yet (0-for-3 against Boise and just 6-for-48 on the year) but that will come," Fox said. "He played very well in all other areas (against Boise). He was very complete tonight."
The Wolf Pack, now 10-7 overall and 3-1 in the WAC, also played one of its most complete games as a team this year, outrebounding Boise 43-37, blocking seven shots and turning the ball over just 10 times while forcing 13 turnovers. Boise State (12-4, 3-1), which brought a six-game winning streak to Lawlor, came away impressed with the five-time defending WAC champion Wolf Pack.
"Nevada got the upper hand," Boise's Thomas said. "They played harder. They got the loose balls. They made the key shots. It just came down to execution and they did that tonight."
"They got after us and we broke down," Boise coach Greg Graham said.
Boise also got after the Pack, just like Fox predicted. The Broncos, who beat the Pack twice last season, went on a 10-0 run late in the first half to cut Nevada's lead to just 31-27 at the intermission. Thomas also hit a 3-pointer and Kurt Cunningham scored inside as Boise cut the Pack's lead to just 55-51 with 7:25 to play in the second half.
"Boise knows how to win," Fox said. "We knew they'd come back. Early leads don't last in this league."
The Wolf Pack, though, made sure Boise tired itself out, fighting an uphill battle the entire game. The Pack went on a 10-0 run midway through the first half to take a 27-11 lead. Joey Shaw drained a 3-pointer and a 10-footer, Johnson scored nine quick points and Malik Cooke added five more inside for the 16-point lead with 7:40 to play in the opening half.
The quick-starting Pack did the same thing in the second half, outscoring Boise 18-6 over the first six minutes to take a 49-33 lead. Johnson again was the catalyst, scoring eight points in the first five minutes. Burleson also hit a 3-pointer for a 39-29 lead.
"I think we started with a sense of urgency just like they did," Graham said, trying to explain the Broncos' struggles coming out of their locker room. "But I'm sure coach Fox told them to get going in the first five minutes and they did. And we didn't."
The Pack, winners of their last three games, fell behind at halftime at both New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech last week before rallying to win both games. Their 31-27 lead against Boise State was the Pack's first halftime lead since a 32-23 lead against Idaho State on Dec. 27 five games ago.
"We've been trying to work on getting off to good starts in the first and second half," Johnson said. "Tonight we did that."
The victory evened the Wolf Pack's record at 1-1 in home WAC games. The Wolf Pack will also host Fresno State on Saturday and Hawaii next Thursday to complete this three-game WAC home stand.
"It is real important to defend our home court," Babbitt said.
The Pack learned that lesson on Jan. 3 when it lost its WAC opener at home against Idaho.
"We're making progress in becoming a better basketball team," Fox said.