The Utah State Aggies gave the Nevada Wolf Pack a thorough beating Saturday afternoon with their Western Athletic Conference measuring stick.
The Aggies, picked by the league's media and coaches before the season to win their fourth consecutive WAC regular season title, wiped out a double-digit deficit in the second half to cruise past the Wolf Pack, 81-67, at Lawlor Events Center.
"We need to get tougher mentally," said Wolf Pack junior Olek Czyz.
The game was billed as a measuring stick for a young Wolf Pack team that returned just one starter from a year ago against a veteran Utah State team that brought back four starters. But when it was over, the Aggies left Reno unbeaten (3-0) in the WAC and with a 14-2 overall record. The Pack fell to 4-12 and 1-2.
"We played well in the first half but they were just tougher than us in the second half," said Czyz, who scored a game-high 25 points. "And when you get behind a team like Utah State, it's hard to come back."
The Wolf Pack, though, did exactly that in the first half. After spotting the Aggies an 18-10 lead seven minutes into the game, the Pack went on a 10-3 run, thanks to a pair of 3-pointers by Czyz and Malik Story in the final minute, to take a 34-31 halftime advantage.
"We had a lot of energy in the first half," Pack point guard Deonte Burton said.
"We were attacking them in the first half," said Story, who added 18 points. "We stopped doing that in the second half."
The Wolf Pack, though, built a 49-39 lead with 14 minutes to play. Story and Burton each drained 3-pointers 32 seconds apart for a 42-35 lead with 18 minutes to go, Czyz completed a lay-up and free throw for a 3-point play and a 45-35 lead and Burton hit a jumper for the 10-point advantage.
"We were running our offense," Pack coach David Carter said. "We were calling sets and we were going through all the steps, from A to B to C and getting good shots. Later on, though, we settled for shots. We were calling the same sets, the same plays. But we were just going to A or B and settling for bad shots."
The game began to unravel for Nevada when Utah State's Pooh Williams hit a jumper to cut the Pack lead to 50-43 with 12:28 to go. Williams' shot (those were his only two points of the game) started an 11-0 Utah State run that also featured lay-ups by Brockeith Pane, Tai Wesley and Brady Jardine.
Instead of enjoying a double-digit lead, the Pack now found itself trailing 52-50 with 10 minutes to go. And Czyz and center Dario Hunt now were on the bench with four fouls.
"We missed that inside presence," Burton said.
Hunt, who ended up fouling out with five minutes to go, played just 10 minutes against the Aggies, scored just four points and did not have a single rebound. Czyz picked up his fourth foul with 11 minutes to go and somehow avoided a fifth.
"That hurt me a little bit," said Czyz of playing with four fouls down the stretch. "It's in the back of your mind. But you can't let that affect you."
It clearly affected the Pack's defense in the paint. With Hunt out of the game and Czyz forced to play phantom defense in order to remain on the floor, Utah State was able to run its offense without much resistance.
The Aggies, who shot 62% for the game, made seven consecutive shots, turning a 54-54 tie with 9:08 to play into a 71-62 lead with 4:37 left. Five of the seven shots were either lay-ups (four) or a dunk. Brian Green also connected on a 3-pointer during the game-changing stretch.
"When you have four fouls, the other team is going to go right at you," Czyz said. "That's just the way it is. I was expecting it."
So was Carter.
"We got soft on the defensive end," Carter said. "With Dario and Olek with four fouls, it's only natural that they would have to back off a little on defense. That's when Utah State went to their strength and just went inside on us."
Czyz, though, converted a pair of free throws to cut Utah State's lead to just 71-67 with 3:06 to play.
Those free throws by Czyz, though, would prove to be the final Pack points of the game.
The Wolf Pack, which shot 39%, missed its final seven shots. The first four misses were all wild and deep 3-point attempts by Story (three) and Burton. The final three misses were meaningless layups in the final seconds.
"We needed to keep attacking and we didn't," Story said. "That's what I mean when I said they were tougher than us. They were mentally tougher than us. They kept attacking us, they kept going at us. We settled for jump shots."
"We tried to hit the home run and you can't do that," Carter said. "You have to stay with what got you there. We stopped running the offense."
Carter said his young team needs to study what the veteran Aggies did to them.
"Utah State is so experienced," Carter said. "They never went away from their sets. They stay with their stuff, they continue to go to their strength. We didn't do that."
This latest WAC measuring stick left the Pack a little battered, bruised and beaten.
"Utah State has been together four and five years," Carter said. "Most of our players are in their first year here. So, yes, it is experience."