RENO —David Carter liked what he saw last Saturday at Fresno State.
“We lost the game (66-62) but I was really proud of how we competed,” the Nevada Wolf Pack coach said Monday. “We played hard for 40 minutes and gave ourselves a chance to win.”
Carter, whose Wolf Pack will bring a four-game losing streak into its rivalry game against the UNLV Rebels Tuesday night (7 p.m.) at Lawlor Events Center, made some drastic changes for the Fresno State game. He inserted freshman Eric Cooper and junior Tyron Criswell into the starting lineup and sent Marqueze Coleman and D.J. Fenner to the bench.
“I didn’t like what I was seeing from the 1, 2, 3 (point guard, shooting guard, small forward),” Carter said. “We needed more production out of those spots.”
Cooper and Criswell responded in a big way. Cooper’s 20 points were the most by a Pack player in his starting debut since Luke Babbitt also had 20 against Montana State on Nov. 15, 2008. And Criswell was right behind him at 19.
“I see it staying this way,” said Carter of his new starting lineup. “As a coach I hate change because it means you are starting to panic and the guys don’t get in a good rhythm. We lost the game but the guys were in a good rhythm the whole game.”
Carter’s lineup isn’t exactly staying the same way it was against Fresno State. He said Monday that he will start Cooper, Criswell, Coleman, A.J. West and Kaileb Rodriguez against UNLV. Coleman played 31 minutes off the bench against Fresno State (he had 10 points, four assists) and will replace Michael Perez in the starting lineup against UNLV. Rodriguez will start at power forward because Robyn Missa is currently bothered by a sore knee.
“I wasn’t surprised,” said Carter of Criswell and Cooper’s performances against Fresno State. “That was a moment they have been waiting for and they took advantage of it.”
The versatile Cooper will play shooting guard when he is on the floor with point guard Coleman. Criswell is the Pack’s new starting small forward despite standing just 6-foot-3.
“It was a big stage and now I just want to continue to build on it,” Cooper said. “I wanted to go out and show that they (the Pack coaches) should have confidence in me.”
Cooper and Criswell had each been playing around 17 minutes a game off the bench behind Coleman and Perez.
“I’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs this year just trying to find my way,” Cooper said. “I just saw this as an opportunity that I needed to take advantage of.”
The Wolf Pack has won three games in a row against UNLV dating back to last year. The Pack has only won four in a row over the Rebels once (1994-96) in the 53-year-old rivalry. All three victories in the Pack’s current winning streak against UNLV, though, have been close (74-71 on Jan. 8, 2014, 76-72 on March 8, 2014 and 64-62 three weeks ago on Jan. 7 in Las Vegas. This is the first time in the 78-game series (UNLV leads 56-22) that three consecutive games have been decided by four points or less.
West had 15 points and 15 rebounds on Jan. 7 against the Rebels while Cooper had 12 points in 23 minutes off the bench. It was the Pack bench, which had a distinct 25-9 edge over the Rebel bench, that was the difference on Jan. 7. The Pack rallied from a 55-49 deficit with 4:47 left to steal the win on the road as Coleman hit a jumper with five seconds left to break a 62-62 tie. Criswell also had a big 3-pointer with 3:52 to go to start the Pack comeback and Cooper hit a 3-pointer to cut UNLV’s lead to 61-60 with 1:04 left.
That Jan. 7 victory is also the last time the Pack has won a game.
“There is a new energy now,” Carter said.
Both teams need a winning streak in the worst way. The Pack is 6-12 overall and 2-4 in the Mountain West. The Rebels are 11-9 and just 2-5 in the Mountain West. UNLV, though, is coming off a dramatic 79-77 overtime win over Utah State last Saturday. The Rebels rallied from a 64-59 deficit with 62 seconds to play in regulation to send the game into overtime and also recovered from a 74-68 deficit with three minutes to go in the overtime.
“They are very young,” said Carter, referring to the fact that the Rebels regularly play five freshman and a sophomore. “They are very talented but experience always beats talent, to be honest with you. That’s also been our problem. We have guys that are inexperienced. But they (UNLV) are still very dangerous.”
The Rebels are led by 6-11 sophomore Christian Wood, who averages 14.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks a game and 6-6 freshman guard Rashad Vaughn, who averages 17.9 points and 4.9 rebounds. Vaughn had 20 points and Wood had 17 against the Pack three weeks ago. Patrick McCaw, a 6-6 freshman, is averaging 8.5 points a game and 6-10 freshman Goodluck Okonoboh chips in with 4.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. Cody Doolin, a senior transfer from the University of San Francisco, averages 6.6 points and 4.4 assists. Freshman Jordan Cornish (5.2 points) and Dwayne Morgan (5.6) also come off the bench. Jelan Kendrick (5.1 points), a 6-6 senior is currently in the starting lineup.
“They have also made changes,” Carter said. “They have gone smaller and they are quicker. They also play Wood out on the perimeter a lot and that is a concern because A.J. (West) has to guard him out there.”
The Wolf Pack shot just 30.5 percent against Fresno State.
“’You have to stay confident,” Coleman said. “You have to continue to guard, play hard and continue to take shots. That’s how you get the confidence back.”
“We just need to see the ball go through the basket,” Carter said. “That’s how you get confidence. If you make one there is less pressure on your next shot. I don’t have a magic wand and can just say, ‘Hey, go get some confidence.’ They just have to have the will to make shots.”
Carter is hoping the move to the bench will get Fenner and Perez turned around.
“We have some individuals who need to get their confidence back in order for us to take the next step,” he said.