RENO — The one thing Nevada has demonstrated in its run to regular and post-season championships in the Mountain West is its resilience.
The Pack has no quit, and no lead is safe as Nevada demonstrated against New Mexico on Jan. 7 when it wiped out a 25-point deficit to grab a 105-104 overtime victory.
Nevada has been a second-half team under the fiery Eric Musselman, who is 52-20 in his short time with the Pack. Nevada has outscored opponents by 188 points (1,418-1,230) in the second half. And, the Pack never lost back-to-back games this season.
Eight times the Pack has trailed at the half and went on to victories, and four of those rallies were from double-digit deficits.
Nevada rallied from a 44-34 halftime deficit to beat Iona, 91-76, on Nov. 20
Three days later at the Great Alaska Shootout, Nevada rallied from a 44-28 deficit to beat Oakland, 82-78.
Then came the famed comeback against New Mexico on Jan. 4. That was Jordan Caroline’s coming out party, as he scored a career-high 43 points.
The fourth double-digit comeback came at last week’s MW Championships. Nevada trailed Fresno State 32-21 at the half, but thanks to a 79-percent shooting mark, Nevada scored 62 points and won by 11.
“I think it helps a lot,” Nevada guard Marcus Marshall said after the Fresno State game. “We’ve been in situations before, and coach tells us to buckle down on defense and have better shot selection.”
“I think it’s a confident locker room,” Nevada coach Eric Musselman said. “We don’t want to get down. With us, everything starts defensively. Our defense ignites our offense.”
Nevada was at the top or near the top of the Mountain West in scoring most of the year, but the defense never got the respect it deserved.
“It (the defense) has definitely developed a lot,” senior D.J. Fenner said. “We made it a point of emphasis after we actually lost to Utah State and everybody bought in defensively after that. It really showed because even if we weren’t going (well) on offense, we were able to pull each other together on defense, and that really ended up creating our offense in many situations. Everybody bought in and we became a much better defensive team in the second half of the season.”
It’s a close-knit group. You might call it a brotherhood, and the character shows in tough situations. This is a deserving and hard-working group, and one that has stuck together through tough times. The work ethic wasn’t always there, but it developed.
“We had some growing pains for them to understand the work ethic that we were going to have in the off seasons, not going home for long stretches, but going to class for the two long sessions we have out of our three summer sessions,” Musselman said. “I think the turning point was them talking about it in the locker room; about them going to get shots and reps up working on their ball handling when we’re not around.
“Because the difficulty of college basketball is that we have time constraints on how much we can be with our players in the off-season and then in season. We have to rely on them to self coach or buddy coach as we call it. They have done an incredible job where one guy goes into the gym at 9 p.m. and he calls three of his teammates and drags them in. Once they believed that through work ethic you could improve on your own. That was the turning point. It probably happened last summer is when we started kick-started that.”
Another key to Nevada’s season is playing and winning the CBI last year en route to a 24-14 season. It was Nevada’s first-ever national title.
“It influenced us a lot,” Fenner said. “It definitely gave us postseason experience. It gave us confidence going into the Mountain West tournament this year. And, even playing in the (regular-season) championship game against Colorado State (two weeks ago) helped. It really helped us grow. And, we are exactly where we want to be.”