RENO – On a night when Nevada honored seniors Marcus Marshall and D.J. Fenner, it was a sophomore who stole the show.
Cameron Oliver played probably the best game of his career, pouring in a career-best 29 points and pulling down a season-best 17 rebounds to lead Nevada to its first Mountain West Conference basketball championship with an 85-72 win over Colorado State on Saturday before a sellout crowd of 11,662 at Lawlor Events Center.
The win earned Nevada, 25-6 and 14-4, the No. 1 seed at next week’s Mountain West Conference Tournament at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center. Nevada plays at noon Thursday against the San Jose State-Utah State winner.
“It was an unbelievable win for the program and for the university,” said Nevada coach Eric Musselman, whose team outscored CSU 45-30 in the final 20 minutes to post the historic win.
And, it was an unbelievable performance by the 6-foot-8 Oliver, who kept the Pack in the game in the opening half with 17 first-half points, and then he keyed a 20-3 second-half surge with back-to-back flushes.
When Oliver was asked where this game ranked in his career, he just smiled. He admitted he was in one of those zones players get into sometimes.
“I don’t know, I just hoop,” said Oliver, who now has 999 career points. “All I do is hoop and win games. It was a key game for us; a big game. I just keyed in the whole week of practice.”
“It’s no surprise to me,” Marshall said. “This isn’t a surprise to anybody, players or coaches. I think Cameron should be a 20 and 10 guy all the time. Big-time guys make big-time plays in big-time games.”
It was an uphill first half for the Pack, which needed an 11-3 surge in the final 2:56 to make it 42-40 at the half.
The Rams led the entire first half, hitting 51.6 from the floor compared to 42 percent for the Pack, which got 17 points from Oliver.
CSU’s Gian Clavell was unstoppable, hitting 6-for-11 from the floor, including 4-for-6 from beyond the arc, en route to 18 points in the first half. He scored 10 straight to propel CSU to a 39-29 lead. Clavell would finish with a game-high 33.
That’s when Nevada went off offensively and got itself back into the game.
Marshall drained a 3-pointer from the right corner, and after the teams traded misses, Oliver knocked in a 3 to make it 39-35.
Braden Koelliker answered with a 3, but a three-point play by Oliver and a lay-up by Josh Hall got the Pack back in the game.
“He has another gear,” Muselman said of Oliver. “We really rode him that first half. If he doesn’t play like he did, that 10-point lead (CSU had) could have been 15 or 16.”
Marshall felt the key to the game was that late first-half run.
“The last three minutes of the half (was big). “We got on a little run and cut it to two points. We went into halftime with our heads up .
“We came out slow. Nerves were part of it. We really wanted to win this game. We shook it off and started to play our game and came away with a win.”
“We got down 10 in the first half, and our players didn’t panic,” Musselman. “Maybe I did.”
Nevada built on its first-half momentum, tying the game at 44 with 17:35 left on a basket by Jordan Caroline, who finished with 18 points and 15 rebounds.
The Rams went up 48-44 on a basket by D.J. Paige and two free throws by Prentiss Nixon (12 points).
Nevada went on a 20-3 run, holding the Rams without a field goal for more than six minutes en route to a 64-51 lead with 9:47 left in the game.
Fenner banked home a shot and Oliver converted a three-point play to give the Pack its first lead of the game, 49-48 with 15:11 left. Koelllicker tied it at 49, but Nevada ran off 15 of the next 17 points.
Caroline, Fenner and Marshall each drained a 3-pointer, and after two free throws by Paige, Oliver had back-to-back flushes and Marshall scored on a driving lay-up.
The Rams briefly closed to eight, 66-58, but back-to-back three-point plays by Caroline and Oliver got the lead back to double digits, 72-58.
The Rams were a dismal 8-for-31 in the final 20 minutes, and besides rebounding, that was a major factor in Nevada’s come-from-behind win.
“Colorado State is a heck of a basketball team,” Musselman said. “They can really score the ball.
“To hold a team to eight field goals and 25 percent, that was the best 20 minutes of defense we played all year. They have so many guys that can score the ball.”