RENO — Don’t dare tell Eric Musselman his Nevada Wolf Pack should be proud it nearly beat the Mountain West’s best team.
“I hate losing,” the Wolf Pack coach said after a 57-54 loss to the San Diego State Aztecs at Lawlor Events Center on Tuesday in front of 6,250 fans. “Am I smiling because we were close? There’s absolutely no chance of me being happy until we win our next game.”
The Wolf Pack, now 12-8 overall and 4-4 in conference, built a 51-44 lead with six minutes to play and then proceeded to score just three points the rest of the game. The Wolf Pack was just 1-of-8 from the floor and 1-of-4 from the free throw line in the final six minutes.
“Absolutely we let that slip away,” guard D.J. Fenner said. “We had control of that game to the end and gave it away.”
Trey Kell connected on a 3-pointer to give the Aztecs a 55-51 lead with 1:41 to play.
“He makes a shot with one second on the (shot) clock and that wins them the game,” Musselman said.
San Diego State, now 15-6, 8-0, shot just 29 percent from the floor for the game but the Aztecs did get hot at the right time. Winston Shepard had a layup to cut the Pack lead to 51-46 with 5:42 to go and Jeremy Hemsley nailed a short jump shot to cut it to 51-48 with 5:07 left. Kell then drove in for a layup with 4:15 left to cut the Pack lead to 51-50. Shepard then gave the Aztecs a 52-51 lead with 3:49 to go with a pair of free throws.
It was the Aztecs’ first lead since there was five minutes to go in the first half (22-21).
The Wolf Pack, though, had chances to keep the lead. Marqueze Coleman missed two free throws with 4:10 to go and the Pack leading 51-50. Coleman was fouled hard to the floor by the Aztecs’ Skylar Spencer before missing the shots.
“I need to make those,” Coleman said. “No excuse. Those are shots I have to make.”
Coleman, who led the Pack with 21 points, also missed a free throw with 16 seconds left that would have tied the game at 55-55.
“I have to show better senior leadership and knock those down,” Coleman said.
The Wolf Pack, however, still had a chance to take the lead and likely win the game in the final seconds. Tyron Criswell drove the left baseline but the Aztecs’ Zylan Cheatham stole the ball away with two seconds to play. Cheatham then made two free throws at the other end to put the game away.
The Aztecs, now 6-0 against the Pack since Nevada joined the Mountain West, were 24-of-32 from the free throw line while the Pack was just 11-of-19.
“They won the game at the free throw line,” Musselman said.
“They grinded it out,” said Fenner, who was 1-of-9 from the floor and finished with seven points. “We just have to figure out how to get stops in the clutch. But we also feel we had this game.”
The Wolf Pack was just 5-of-25 on 3-pointers, missing four 3-pointers in the final six minutes.
“I’m not going to tell guys to not take the open ones,” Musselman said.
There weren’t many open shots for either team most of the night. San Diego made just 15-of-52 shots overall and the Pack wasn’t much better at 19-of-64 (30 percent). Both teams were holding opponents under 40 percent from the floor entering the game.
“Some people watching might say it was an ugly game but a lot of coaches would watch this game and say it was a beautifully played defensive game,” Musselman said. “If you hold a team that talented to just 15 field goals, I can’t fault our effort.”
San Diego State made just 6-of-25 shots in the first half as the Wolf Pack took a 33-26 lead at the break.
The Wolf Pack jumped out to a 10-3 lead five minutes into the game as Cameron Oliver and Coleman had 3-pointers and Coleman and Criswell scored in the lane. The Aztecs recovered to take a 20-18 lead but the Wolf Pack dominated the last eight minutes of the opening half. Eric Cooper and Fenner each had 3-pointers as the Pack took a 24-22 lead. Criswell hit a runner from five feet out and Coleman had a pair of free throws and a 3-point play as the Wolf Pack took a 33-25 lead.
“We were controlling the whole game,” Fenner said.
The Wolf Pack led in the game for more than 26 minutes while the Aztecs led for just 6:36. “I think we’ve known all along that we can play with anybody in this league,” Fenner said. “So we’re not proving anything to ourselves anymore. We’re expecting to win these games.”
San Diego State has now won eight games in a row to stay atop the Mountain West. The Aztecs also tied the conference record with their seventh consecutive conference victory in a row on the road.
“They are the cream of the crop in our league,” Musselman said.
The Wolf Pack, now 7-2 at home this season, will head out on the road to play at Utah State on Saturday and Colorado State on Feb. 6. The Pack won’t return to Lawlor until Feb. 10 when it meets Air Force.