RENO — After losing to UNLV on Wednesday, Nevada coach Eric Musselman ripped into his team for its lack of defense and rebounding.
The 23rd-ranked Wolf Pack got the message loud and clear.
Nevada won the battle of the boards, 42-35, held San Diego State to 33 percent from the floor and got 26 points from Jordan Caroline and 21 more from Kendall Stephens en route to an 83-58 win before 10,134 fans Saturday night at Lawlor Events Center.
And, thanks to Utah State’s upset of Boise State, Nevada (21-5, 10-2) finds itself a half-game ahead of Boise entering Wednesday’s showdown at Taco Bell Arena.
And, what made the day even better was the return of Caleb Martin, who battled through pain and scored 10 points in 23 minutes. Martin missed the UNLV game with a lisfranc injury to his foot, an injury that normally sidelines athletes three weeks minimum.
“I can’t even imagine losing two in a row, especially at home,” said Lindsey Drew, who contributed 12 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. “As we broke the huddles we were saying ‘bounceback.’”
“I slept like a baby last night,” Musselman said. “I didn’t know if we would win, but I knew we’d play with great energy. We had great practices (Thursday and Friday), and the guys got re-focused.”
It really showed in the second half. Nevada shot 50 percent and held the Aztecs, who have lost six of seven away conference games, to 28 percent from the field, including 21 percent from beyond the 3-point line.
“At halftime, we continued to stress what we had talked about all week — rebound the ball and sit in a stance and be physical,” Musselman said. “Lindsey (9 in the first half) did a lot of that in the first half and in the second half Jordan pounded the defensive glass.
“Our defense was phenomenal in the second half and our rebounding was phenomenal.”
Drew, one of Nevada’s top defenders, agreed with his coach.
“We had to lock in defensively, and we’re capable of that,” he said. “We had been getting away from that earlier in the season, myself included. We were not as engaged on defense. In order to win, we really have to play defense.”
The Aztecs did get 11 offensive rebounds, but good interior defense held them to eight second-chance points, as the Pack contested everything.
And, the offense moved the ball much better. Caroline had 15 of his 26 in the second half and Stephens had 12 of his 21.
Musselman pointed out a common thread in Nevada’s 21 wins has been scoring spurts.
“We’ve had a 12-0 run or a 9-0 run,” he said. “Tonight, we had multiple runs.”
The three best came in the 48-point second half.
Leading by a threadbare margin, 42-40, with 16:47 left, the Pack went on a 14-5 run to open a 57-45 lead.
Drew started the surge with a 3-pointer, and after Devin Watson scored for the Aztecs, Caroline grabbed an offensive rebound, was fouled and knocked down the two ensuing free tosses to make it 47-42. Stephens, who had seven 3-pointers, made one from the left wing to increase the margin to 50-42.
Malik Pope made a 3-pointer from the right corner, but Drew and Cody Martin scored from close range, and Stephens buried another 3-pointer with 11:42 remaining.
Nevada went on a 15-4 run to take a 20-point lead, 72-52, with 6:14 left. The Aztecs were toast.
The first five points of the run came from the free-throw line before Caroline, Caleb Martin, Drew and Caroline again, added baskets. Cody Martin completed the rally with two free tosses.
Nevada ended the game with an 8-2 surge, including 3-pointers by Stephens, who was 7-for-13 from long range.
Talking about surges, Nevada had a nice 10-0 run in the first half before the Aztecs rallied back for a 35-all tie at the intermission.
“We didn’t play well the first half,” Musselman said. “We didn’t move the ball. In the second half, the ball had eyes. When Kendall hits seven 3s like he did, it stretches the floor. Jordan is able to drive and get to the free-throw line.”
It is still just one game as Musselman is always quick to point out.
Including Wednesday’s game at Boise State, Nevada has four of its last six on the road, but it was nice to restore order and win at home.