RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack sent a clear and intimidating message to the rest of the Mountain West on Wednesday night at Lawlor Events Center.
That ominous message? The rest of the conference might have to be content with playing for second place this season.
The Wolf Pack, which has won the last two Mountain West regular season titles, whipped the Utah State Aggies, 72-49, in the Mountain West opener for both teams.
“We’re just trying to prove ourselves to the league,” said senior Jordan Caroline, who had 15 points, 12 rebounds and a career-high seven assists. “Every day we just keep our head down and come to work.”
Wednesday’s game, which was witnessed by a crowd of 11,224, the second largest of the season at Lawlor, was supposed to be a matchup of the two best teams in the Mountain West. The Aggies and Pack were the two best offensive teams in the league (the Pack at 82.8 points a game and Utah State at 81.4) and two of the three best on defense (Nevada was third at 67.5 points allowed and Utah State was first at 64.8).
“We came out knowing Utah State has played very well this season,” Pack coach Eric Musselman said. “Our guys had great respect for them.”
The Pack, ranked No. 5 in the USA Today Coaches Poll and No. 6 by the Associated Press, is now 14-0 overall, equaling the 1951-52 team for the best start in school history.
Utah State, which fell to 10-4 overall, has now lost five games in a row to the Wolf Pack. The Aggies’ 49 points are the fewest they have scored against the Wolf Pack since they beat the Pack 43-36 to open the 1938-39 season.
“We know teams are going to be jacked up to play us,” said Pack point guard Cody Martin, who had 14 points, seven rebounds and six assists. “Who wouldn’t get jacked up to play the No. 6 team in the nation? But we are also jacked up to play them. We want to beat them as much as they want to beat us.”
Beating the Wolf Pack at Lawlor Events Center might be an impossible task this season. The Wolf Pack is now 7-0 at home this season and has won 39 of its last 41 home games. The Pack is also 50-5 at home in three-plus season since Musselman became head coach.
“The guys are excited to play again,” said Musselman, whose career record at Nevada is now 95-29 overall and 40-15 in Mountain West games. “I don’t think we were excited to play South Dakota State (a 72-68 win on Dec. 15) and I don’t think we were excited to play Akron (a 68-62 win on Dec. 22). I didn’t sense we were like a kid in a candy store against those two teams, excited to just go out and play a basketball game. But we were excited at Utah (an 86-71 win on Saturday). And we were excited tonight. I hope we’re just as excited to play all our conference games with the same juice.”
The Wolf Pack suffocated the Aggies with defense, stealing the ball a season-high 15 times and causing 20 turnovers. Tre’Shawn Thurman and Cody Martin each had four steals and Jazz Johnson had three.
“Defensively, that’s about as good as we can play,” Musselman said. “We did a great job defending the 3-point line (Utah State was 4-of-23 on threes). I can’t say enough about the individual defensive effort of our five starters. They were phenomenal.”
Utah State also shot just 26 percent (16-of-61) from the floor.
“We’re happy we played great defense for 40 minutes,” said Thurman, who had 14 points, four rebounds and three blocks to go along with his four steals. “That’s some of the best defense we’ve played all season.”
The Wolf Pack shot just 39 percent (24-of-61) from the floor and just 24 percent (7-of-29) on threes.
“Thankfully our defense came to play,” Cody Martin said.
The Wolf Pack scored the final six points of the first half to take a 35-25 lead at the break. Cody Martin and Corey Henson each had a steal and a layup in the final 1:15 of the half to push the lead to double digits.
Neither team shot well in the opening half. The Aggies were 2-of-11 on threes and just 9-of-27 overall while the Pack was 3-of-15 on threes and 13-of-35 overall. But the difference in the first 20 minutes, as it was in the second 20 minutes, was the Wolf Pack defense.
The Wolf Pack buried the Aggies in the first half with nine steals leading to 11 Utah State turnovers. The nine steals equaled the Pack’s high in steals this season for an entire game (against California Baptist on Nov. 19).
Cody Martin had three steals in the first half while Henson and Johnson both came off the bench and contributed two steals.
Utah State’s last lead of the game was 6-5 just four minutes into the game. The Pack then went on a 7-0 run that started with a Cody Martin steal that led to a Caroline short jumper in the paint.
Thurman, who was averaging 8.1 points a game going into Wednesday night, scored 10 points in just under seven minutes as the Pack took a 21-13 lead with 8:22 to go in the half. Thurman hit 3-pointers for leads of 10-6 and 17-10 and scored inside for a 19-13 lead. He capped his offensive flurry with a dunk off a pass from Caroline for the 21-13 lead.
Cody Martin, who also had 10 points in the first half, had a pair of layups a minute apart off passes from Caroline and Johnson to cap an 8-0 run and give the Pack a 25-13 lead.
The Aggies, who have now lost three games in a row on the road to BYU, Houston and Nevada, did make things interesting late in the first half with a 10-2 run. A 3-pointer by Sam Merrill capped the run, cutting the Pack’s lead to just 29-25 with 1:42 to go in the half.
Merrill, the Aggies’ leading scorer at 19.7 points a game, finished with 16 on 6-of-14 shooting.
A pair of 3-pointers by Caroline and Caleb Martin gave the Wolf Pack a 43-30 lead just three minutes into the second half. A 3-pointer by Johnson put the Pack up 54-37 with 12 minutes to go and all but put the game away.
The Pack, though, then went scoreless for more than four minutes but the Aggies still could barely dent the Pack lead. A jumper by Merrill and a free throw by Quinn Taylor cut the Pack lead to 54-40 with 10:32 to go. But a layup by Cody Martin, another 3-pointer by Johnson and a Trey Porter layup off a feed by Cody Martin gave the Pack a 61-40 lead with 6:39 to play.
The Wolf Pack, which has been ranked in the Top 10 all season long, is now 71-16 in school history when it has played a game while ranked in the Top 25. Utah State fell to 16-101 in its school history against Top 25 teams. Their last victory over a Top 25 team was against the Wolf Pack in 2006-07.
“That’s the way it’s going to be all season,” Cody Martin said. “We’re going to get every team’s best shot. They want to show they can compete with us.”
The Wolf Pack, which has just eight home games remaining this season, will head to Albuquerque to take on the New Mexico Lobos today before returning to Lawlor Events Center to host the San Jose State Spartans on Jan. 9.