MILWAUKEE – Nevada’s first NCAA appearance since the 2007-08 season and its best season since 2011-12 ended in a healthy dose of disappointment.
After a sub-par first half, Nevada battled back to within five points twice and four points another time before falling, 84-73, to Iowa State in a first-round NCAA Midwest Regional game at the BMO Bradley Center on Thursday night.
Nevada finished 28-7, which tied the 1945-46 and the 2011-12 squads for the most wins in school history.
“We lost to a team that’s really good and (was) better than us tonight,” Nevada coach Eric Musselman said. “They are the sixth most experienced team in the country, and I thought in the first half their experience really showed. I couldn’t be prouder with the effort and energy we showed in the second half. We’re all hurting. That locker room, we have a lot of guys crying.”
“It hurts the way we just ended it,” said Cameron Oliver, who finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots in one of his best statistical games of the season. “I couldn’t be more proud of these guys. We definitely had an historic season. The one thing I can say is that we worked hard; didn’t give up.”
That never-say-die attitude showed in the second half when Nevada outscored the Cyclones, 46-44. Nevada shot nearly 50 percent in the final half, finishing at 40 percent for the game.
“We just couldn’t get over the hump this time,” Oliver said. “You know, we had small things with turnovers, then the foul calls that happened, unfortunately. We tried our best to fight back. We just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Nevada played uphill the entire game. The score was tied twice (2-2 and 7-7) and there was a single lead change. Nevada fell behind by double digits with 6-plus minutes left in the first half, and walked off the floor facing a 40-27 deficit. The Pack would never recover.
Nevada reverted to its form from last Friday at the conference tournament against Fresno State when it shot just 23.3 in the first half. Nevada went 9-for-30 from the floor, and 30 percent won’t win you many games.
Oliver and Jordan Caroline (20 points, 8 rebounds) were a combined 7-for-17 in the opening half shooting 30 percent from the field. Oliver (10) and Caroline (8) combined for 18 first-half points.
The rest of the Pack shot a miserable 2-for-13. D.J. Fenner continued to struggle, going 0-for-4. He went 9-for-34 in the final four games of the season.
A 15-4 run that started midway through the first half gave the Cyclones a 28-17 lead, as Monte Morris (19 points) dropped in two 3-pointers to key the surge.
Nevada scored five of the next seven points to make it 30-22 with 4:11 left in the half. A tough 3 by Matt Thomas (13 points), a jump shot by Donovan Jackson and a lay-up by Deonte Burton (14 points) extended the lead to the biggest of the half, 37-22 with 2:43 left.
Two free throws by Fenner and a triple by Oliver made it 37-27, but Iowa got three straight points from Solomon Young, including a buzzer-beating flush.
“I just thought we had a real struggle scoring the first half,” Musselman said. “That was really the difference in the game. It’s not like they have unbelievable size inside. We missed some shots. We didn’t finish through contact, and you know it might have been nerves as well.”
“I would say just the nerves,” Caroline said. “I mean those are shots you make.”
Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said he was impressed by his team’s defense.
“Yeah, we were good,” he said.
“You hold them to 30 percent shooting; contested shots. We were locked in. They bought into trying to be good on the defensive end of the floor, contesting shots. Naz (Mitrou-Long) has really taken it upon himself to be our defensive stopper. I thought he did a terrific job.
“Marshall finished with 16. He had to really work for everything. I think our first half defense gave us an opportunity to extend the lead, to be up 13 where we can weather a little bit of a run Nevada would make. They are good. They can really score. Our biggest thing was to make sure Marshall didn’t get any good looks. I thought we did that for the most part.”
The Pack showed its grit in the final 20 minutes, putting together three good surges.
Trailing 44-31 with 17:16 left in the game, Nevada went on a 13-5 run to close to 49-44.
Lindsey Drew started the surge with a 3-pointer, and after Morris knocked down a jump shot to make it 46-34, Caroline scored on a three-point play and Oliver drained a 3-pointer, trimming the deficit to 46-40 with 14:56 left.
After the Cyclones stretched the lead to 55-47 thanks to baskets by Morris, Mitrou-Long and Darrell Bowie, Caroline drained two foul shots and scored on a put back to make it 55-51 with 9:56 left. Nevada had a couple of key mistakes that kept it from possibly taking the lead.
Iowa State went on a 9-0 run to make it 64-51, but a 15-5 run led by Drew, Marcus Marshall and Oliver made it 71-66 with 3:02 remaining. Nevada would get no closer.