Eric Musselman has fallen in love with his Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team.
“This is the best season I’ve ever had in coaching,” said Musselman, a coach in professional and college basketball since 1989. “This is my favorite team I’ve ever coached in all of basketball.”
The Wolf Pack earned their coach’s lofty praise by beating the Colorado State Rams 87-80 in overtime in front of a crowd of 6,633 at Lawlor Events Center on Sunday afternoon. The Wolf Pack, which won just nine games a year ago for coach David Carter, now finds itself at 18-10 overall and tied for third in the Mountain West with Boise State at 10-6 with two games to play. Colorado State fell to 15-14, 7-9.
“This is our best win of the year by far,” said Musselman, who was full of superlatives after the victory. “It’s not even close.”
The Wolf Pack, which lost at Colorado State 76-67 on Feb. 6, had to beat the Rams without starting point guard Marqueze Coleman (injured left ankle) for the entire game and starting forward Cameron Oliver (fouled out) for the final 4:51 of regulation and the entire five-minute overtime.
“I’m very proud of my team,” said senior Tyron Criswell, who had 23 points and eight rebounds. “This shows how tough we are.”
The Wolf Pack trailed 67-62 after two free throws by Colorado State’s John Gillon with 1:56 to go in regulation. The Rams built their lead thanks in large part to a pair of 3-pointers by Antwan Scott (30 points) just 34 seconds apart with just under three minutes to play. The Wolf Pack defense, though, then held the Mountain West’s top scoring team (79.9 points a game) scoreless for the next 1:55 as four free throws by D.J. Fenner and three by Criswell gave the Pack a 69-67 lead with less than a second to go. The Pack’s Eric Cooper, though, fouled the Rams’ Joe De Ciman about 25 feet from the basket, allowing De Ciman to send the game into overtime with two free throws.
“We had to win this game twice,” Musselman said.
The last time the Wolf Pack went to overtime was a little over a week ago when UNLV scored 22 points in the extra five minutes to win going away 102-91 in Las Vegas on Feb. 20.
“Down in Vegas we went to overtime and we acted like the game was over,” Criswell said. “We didn’t act like it was zero-zero all over again and it was just a five-minute game. This time we treated it like it was a new game.”
“We got in the huddle and we just said, ‘We are not going to let what happened in Las Vegas happen again,” sophomore forward Elijah Foster said.
The Wolf Pack dominated the overtime. The Pack was 4-of-7 from the floor and 10-of-11 from the free throw line in the extra five minutes. Colorado State gave the game away at the free throw line, missing 7-of-12 from the line in the overtime.
“This game was personal for us,” said Foster, who had 10 points and a career high eight rebounds. “We played with a chip on our shoulders because we know we should have beaten them in Colorado.”
A layup by Criswell gave the Pack a 71-70 lead 27 seconds into the overtime. Criswell then hit a short jumper in the lane 38 seconds later for a 73-70 lead. Foster then hit a turn-around jumper, falling to the floor after his release, for a 75-70 lead with 2:59 to play. A pair of free throws by Fenner completed an 8-0 run, giving the Wolf Pack a 77-70 lead with 2:33 to play.
The Wolf Pack actually outscored the Rams 12-1 over a four-minute stretch in overtime, turning a 70-69 deficit with 4:48 to go into a commanding 81-71 lead with 47 seconds to play. It was a layup by Fenner that put the game away, giving the Wolf Pack a 79-71 lead with 67 seconds to go.
The 6-foot-7 Foster, who played a crucial role after Oliver (6-8) fouled out in regulation, also had three rebounds and an assist to go along with two points in the overtime.
“This was a breakout game for Elijah,” Musselman said. “He’s going to be very important for us moving forward. We knew he had a good mid-range game (on his jumper) because we see it everyday in practice. He just needed to do it in games. Tonight was also his best job of pursuing rebounds.”
Foster, Lindsey Drew (eight points, nine rebounds, eight assists), Fenner and Juwan Anderson played all five minutes of the overtime and Criswell played four before fouling out.
“If it would have gone into another overtime we probably would have run out of players,” Musselman said.
The 6-foot Anderson played a career-high 24 minutes and the 6-4 Drew played a career-high 43 minutes at guard because of Coleman’s injury.
“We really grinded this one out,” said Fenner, who scored a team-high 24 points despite shooting just 6-of-24 from the floor. “I’m ecstatic. With Marqueze out we all knew we had to step up. Marqueze is a big key to our team, offensively and defensively. We knew we had to step up to the plate.”
The Wolf Pack has now won five of its last six games and is now 11-2 at home this season after going 7-8 a year ago at Lawlor Events Center. “We’ve really taken advantage of the homecourt advantage,” Fenner said. “We’re comfortable here in our own gym.”
The Wolf Pack has just two games remaining in the regular season, at Boise State on March 2 and home against New Mexico on March 5. The Mountain West Tournament, with a berth in the NCAA tournament on the line, will be in Las Vegas March 9-12.
“The last couple years at this time of the year I’d would always sit up here and say we still have a chance to go to the NCAA tournament,” Fenner said. “This year I really believe it.”