Joe Santoro: One shining moment for Pack

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team lit up Northern Nevada on Wednesday night.

“You could feel the electricity in here tonight,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said. “It was pretty loud, a neat environment. College basketball is so neat when you have an environment like tonight.”

Everything came together for the Wolf Pack to produce an 85-77 victory over the Boise State Broncos. The crowd could be heard in Elko and was in rare form, telling the Broncos “Boise is not a state,” and the energy in Lawlor could have turned on all the neon on Virginia Street.

Above all else, the Pack simply refused to lose.

“We couldn’t lose this game,” Musselman said.

End of discussion.

Down eight at the half, down 10 less than a minute into the second half. The Wolf Pack just rolled up its sleeves, wiped its brow and went to work. “We wanted to make sure we left it all on the court,” senior D.J. Fenner said. “We didn’t want any regrets after the game.”

The Wolf Pack didn’t play any better than the Broncos. Boise State, in fact, made three more field goals and five more 3-pointers. The Broncos bench outscored the Pack bench 22-2. The Pack simply outworked the Broncos, attacking the backboard and the rim at both ends of the floor. It paid off in a 33-29 edge on the glass and a 30-11 edge in points at the free throw line.

“We talked over and over this week about the will to win and competing,” Musselman said. “A game like this is not about X’s and O’s. It’s about desire.”

The hardest working team in the Mountain West clearly calls Northern Nevada home.

“We put it all on the line,” sophomore Cam Oliver said. “We knew we had to sacrifice everything on the court. We’ve worked too hard not to deserve this success.”

Oliver, arguably the most talented player on any court in the Mountain West, was without a doubt one of the hardest workers against the Broncos. The 6-foot-8 center took over the game in the second half with the Pack still trailing. His dunk pulled the Pack to within 53-51 with 13 minutes to go. He blocked a shot by Boise’s Chandler Hutchison a minute later.

Coming out of a timeout with 11:39 to go and Boise still up 55-51, Oliver walked down the center of the court, waved both his hands in the air, looked in the stands in the student section and screamed, “This is our house.”

He then proceeded to prove it.

Oliver drove the lane for a three-point play to cut Boise’s lead to 58-56 with 10:39 to go. He then tied the game at 58-58 with a jumper in the paint. His dunk with 9:22 to go evened the scored at 60-60. The crowd of 8,625 — not the biggest of the year but the loudest by far — then stood on its feet and blew the roof off Lawlor.

“When the crowd is like that, it helps more than people think,” Fenner said.

Oliver, who would finish with 21 points and 11 boards (it felt like 41 and 21) wasn’t done. He stole a Broncos inbounds pass and fed Fenner for a layup and a 63-62 Pack lead with 7:19 left. The most talented player on the floor was clearly the hardest working player on the floor.

“We knew what was on the line,” Oliver said.

Oliver went to the line for three free throws, after Boise’s David Wacker fouled him about 22 feet from the basket, and made all three for a 68-64 Pack lead with five minutes to go. His offensive rebound led to three free throws by Marcus Marshall and a 74-70 lead with 2:48 to go. Oliver then put his personal finishing touch on the victory with a 3-pointer for a 79-72 lead with 49 seconds left. He then turned to the crowd again, put both arms in the air, pressed his forefinger and thumb to his palm, leaving three fingers pointing skyward to let everyone know what he had just done.

He just stuck a dagger in the Broncos’ hearts.

Game over.

“Every game the rest of the season is going to be like that,” Oliver said.

If it is, the Pack is going to hang its first Mountain West banner from the Lawlor ceiling. With three games remaining in the regular season, the Pack is tied with Colorado State atop the league. The two teams meet in the season finale March 4 at Lawlor. If you attend that game, bring earplugs.

“This is what we worked hard for,” Marshall said. “This is what you think about when you are a kid in your backyard. You dream about the crowd yelling and you going out there and hitting big shots.”

The Wolf Pack went out on Wednesday, grabbed first place by the neck and wouldn’t let go. It was its house on Wednesday. Its stage. Its moment. And it wasn’t going to stand by and allow a bunch of guys from a place that isn’t even a state to steal their thunder. We saw Wednesday the Wolf Pack at its best, when it just goes out and grinds an opponent into the floor. This is the most talented team in the league and the hardest working team in the league. It’s a combination that’s impossible to beat. It should show up on game night wearing jeans, a plaid shirt, a pocket protector, gloves, steel-toed work boots and safety goggles.

Silver and blue collar. That’s this Pack team.

“We just never give up,” Marshall said. “That’s the mindset you have to have.”

It’s the mindset the Pack has had ever since Musselman became head coach two years ago next month. Musselman told his players if they worked harder than anyone, he’d take care of the X’s and O’s. He told them if they left their blood and sweat out on the floor he would make sure they get rewarded.

“It’s a reward just to play meaningful games like this late in the season,” Musselman said.

The rewards this team has been working for all season long, the rewards, as Oliver said, they deserve, are just around the corner.


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