LAS VEGAS — Nevada is going dancing.
Led by tournament MVP Jordan Caroline’s 23 points and 10 rebounds, Nevada knocked off Colorado State, 79-71, at Thomas & Mack Center to win the Mountain West postseason tournament and advance to the NCAA Tournament.
It’s the Wolf Pack’s first postseason conference championship since the 2006 season under Mark Fox, and it’s also the first time since 2013 the regular-season MW champ won the postseason tournament.
Nevada, 28-6, will find out its fate today sometime after 2:30 p.m. The 28 wins ties the 2011-12 team that went 28-7.
Nevada won the game despite giving up a 16-point first-half lead and shooting just 18.2 percent from the field, including 7.7 percent from 3 (1-for-13) in the second half. This one was all about defense (CSU shot just 38 percent), rebounding (46-34 edge), and free throw shooting. Nevada went 26-for-34 in the second half. CSU had a 27-23 edge in baskets made.
“We knew that Colorado State wasn’t going to go away; that they would compete and make a run,” Nevada coach Eric Musselman said. “They are tough minded and can compete. I’m proud of the way we rebounded and defended, especially when we struggled to score at times and they went on their scoring run.
“They did a good job of double-teaming Marcus (Marshall) in the second half, and we had some costly turnovers. So to say a team would go 4 for 22 and find a way to win … this game was won on the glass.”
And now, it’s on to the NCAA Tournament, another goal that was on Nevada’s list at the start of the season.
“I told the guys we’re going to enjoy this (Saturday and Sunday),” Musselman said. “I want them to enjoy it with their families tonight. We will enjoy Selection Sunday, and then Sunday night it’s back to work. We’re happy that we’re going, but we’re going there to compete and try to win.”
“I don’t care where we go,” Cam Oliver said. “We are going to play hard wherever we go and try to put Nevada on the map.”
Nevada used a quick start by Caroline, who was also the MVP of the South Point Holiday Hoops Classic back in December, and a strong finish by Marshall (21 points) to open a 44-32 halftime lead. Nevada shot 58 percent, making 19 of 33 attempts.
It’s a good thing Caroline was clicking early, because it took Marshall about 17 minutes to score his first points, D.J. Fenner was cold again, and Oliver got up just three shots and made one. Marshall ended the half with seven, all in the final four minutes.
Caroline had eight in the first 4 1Ž2 minutes to stake Nevada to an 11-3 lead. He would finish with 16 in the first half.
“I wanted to help my team any way I could, not just scoring,” said Caroline, who helped hold Emmanuel Omogbo to 12 points and 10 rebounds. “Defensively, I just wanted to play hard and take it upon myself to guard people like Omogbo.”
Caroline’s performance was another case where somebody picks up the slack for a teammate.
“We’re all capable of doing great things,” Oliver said. “If somebody is slacking (not scoring well), somebody else steps up for them. Jordan has one of the greatest motors I’ve ever seen. He carried us in the championship game.”
The Pack had a big 11-2 run to grab a 30-17 lead. Caroline, Lindsey Drew and Fenner drained 3s and freshman Josh Hall added a put back. Gian Clavell, who finished with 30, scored CSU’s only points in the surge.
The lead reached 15 on a 3-ball by Caroline, but J.D. Paige banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to make it a 12-point game.
The Rams started to chip away at the lead, and they finally caught Nevada at 51 on a 3-ball by Prentiss Nixon, his second 3-pointer during the 8-1 run. Nixon finished with 23.
Nevada showed its resiliency once again, opening a 60-51 lead on a three-point play by Hall and three free throws by Marshall after CSU coach Larry Eustachy was hit with a technical fall after coming onto the court to argue a call.
Marshall made one of two technical free throws and then made both as a result of the foul call. He went 12-for-16 at the line. He added three more free throws a little more than a minute later after being fouled on a 3-point attempt.
The Rams fought back to 62-60 thanks to five points by Clavell and a free throw by Nixon. Nevada kept drawing fouls and scored 11 of the next 16 points, nine on free throws, to take a 73-65 lead with 33.6 seconds left.
“It was a great game,” Eustachy said. “Give Nevada a ton of credit. We lost by eight and we spotted them nine early. I don’t know if we were nervous or what it was. But Nevada is a very good team, I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t go to this tournament and win some games.
“Our guys battled. They never gave up. They fought through a lot of adversity that was happening on the court. Give Nevada credit, they grabbed some balls that made the difference in the game.”