FRESNO, Calif. — For the first time in the Eric Musselman era, the Nevada Wolf Pack didn’t dread the seven-hour bus ride home from Fresno State.
The Pack, led by Kendall Stephens’ 19 points and 18 more from Caleb Martin, knocked off the Bulldogs, 80-65, in the Mountain West opener for both teams before a crowd of 6,008 at Save Mart Center on Wednesday night.
Nevada had lost 85-63 and 77-76 in its two previous trips to Save Mart under Musselman, and lost in former coach David Carter’s last trip to the San Joaquin Valley.
“It was the start of the second season,” Musselman said. “We had tremendous focus in preparation. We got off Christmas Eve and that was it. The commitment to come in Christmas Day and have a practice, and then have to travel the day after Christmas.
“This has been a difficult place for sure. The focus and energy was good. Tonight it was for two halves. We won the first by eight and the second by seven. It was a good performance by our team against a good team.”
Nevada led for 39-minutes and 24-seconds. The game was tied once. No matter how you slice it, that is impressive, especially on the road.
“It was a big win,” Caleb Martin said. “It’s a tough place to play. They are on break now, so the fan base wasn’t crazy.”
Musselman said he had no concerns about his team’s effort after the disappointing loss to San Francisco in Las Vegas.
“Thought we were going to play,” Musselman said. “I wasn’t worried about how hard (we would play). Very seldom do we come out and not play hard after a loss. After a loss it’s not comfortable in that building (Lawlor).”
Nevada’s defense, especially beyond the 3-point arc, was impressive. Ditto for the ball control.
The Pack held the Bulldogs to 25 percent from beyond the arc and turned the ball over seven times. Sam Bittner, Jahmel Taylor and Deshon Taylor were a combined 3-for-13. That is the trio’s second-worst performance from beyond the arc.
“They are ranked No. 29 in the country in steals, and we only had seven turnovers and four were offensive fouls,” Musselman said. “One of them was when Lindsey (Drew) carelessly dribbled the ball off his foot. We knew (taking care of the ball) was the key to the game.”
“We talked over and over about not giving them an open look. Bittner was 0-for-1 and we never left him. Deshon was 1-for-4 and Jahmel was 2-for-8. That is probably their lowest 3-point makes of the season.”
Martin added that the Pack sagged off the other two shooters on the floor.
Nevada used 13 points off turnovers, nine second-chance points and a 46 percent effort from the field to take a 38-30 lead at the half.
Nevada led nearly the entire first half (19:19). Fresno State was within one four times, but never took the lead.
With Nevada up 17-16 midway through the first half, the Pack went on 13-5 lead for a 30-21 advantage with 5:27 remaining.
Jordan Caroline (13 points) and Hallice Cooke started the surge with back-to-back 3-pointers, and Drew (13 points) converted a hard rive to the basket to make it 25-16. After a Terrell Carter score, Cody Martin (10 points) scored on a drive and Fresno State’s Jaron Hopkins dropped in a 3-ponter to make it 27-21.
Caroline converted a three-point play for a 30-21 led. The Bulldogs’ Ray Bowles scored twice to make it 33-25 with 3:23 left, and that margin remained intact the rest of the way.
The Bulldogs closed to 40-35 with 17:34 left after a bucket by Bowles and a lay-up by Bryson Williams.
Nevada rebounded with a 15-3 run over the next four minutes to open up a 55-38 advantage, its largest of the game.
Stephens had two free throws a left-corner 3-pointer early in the run. Martin added a 3-pointer and a layup on back-to-back possessions.
Stephens has scored 10 or more points in five straight games and eight of the last nine.
“Staying aggressive,” Stephens said when asked about his recent hot streak. “I know where my shots are coming from. I don’t like the top of the key, but I like the wings and corner.”
The Bulldogs closed to nine, 65-56, with 7:44 left when Williams (11 points) scored five quick points.
“I thought we did a good job (on Williams) in the first half,” Musselman said.
“We let him get a little comfortable in the second half.”
Nevada answered back with a game-clinching 11-4 run. Martin had a basket and free throw, and Caroline dropped in a 3-pointer with 2:13 left.