RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack was just seconds away Tuesday night from its first three-game losing streak in nearly five years. Coach Steve Alford then called a timeout with 15 seconds left and told Jalen Harris to go win the game.
“We wanted him to go right to the rim,” Alford said. “That’s it, just go to the rim.”
Harris did exactly as he was told, beating the Wyoming Cowboys 68-67 with a layup with nine seconds to go in front of a relieved home crowd of 8,047 at Lawlor Events Center.
The victory allowed the Wolf Pack, now 11-7 overall and 4-2 in the Mountain West, to avoid its first three-game losing streak since the final three games of the 2014-15 season. Wyoming fell to 5-14, 0-7 and has now lost 22 of its last 26 conference games.
“Wyoming has been in a tough spot lately,” Alford said. “But for them to come in here and play us hard, that says a lot about them. It kind of stinks when somebody has to lose a game like this.”
The two teams traded the lead four times in the final 51 seconds.
Wyoming took a 65-64 lead on a 3-pointer by Hunter Thompson with 51 seconds to play, Nisre Zouzoua put the Pack up 66-65 with a dunk with 25 seconds to go, Hunter Maldonado gave Wyoming a 67-66 lead with 15 seconds remaining and Harris won the game with his layup with nine seconds left.
“It’s always nice to get a layup to win the game,” said Harris, who had a game-high 20 points. “It was fun. Clearly we didn’t want it to be that close but it was a grind out game.”
Wyoming, the only team in the Mountain West without a league victory this season, has now lost five games in a row and 11 of its last 13. The Cowboys now have also lost six of their last seven games against the Wolf Pack.
“It feels good to win any college basketball game,” said Zouzoua, who had 12 points. “Every game is hard to win.”
This game, against the last-place team in the Mountain West, wasn’t supposed to be this difficult for the Wolf Pack at Lawlor, where the Pack is now 7-2 this season.
And it wasn’t all that difficult for the Pack in the first 20 minutes. The Wolf Pack never trailed in the first half, taking a 32-26 lead at the break. Jazz Johnson, who had 16 points, hit a 10-foot jumper and a 3-pointer to break a 21-21 tie and Johncarlos Reyes converted a right-handed hook from the right side of the basket as the Wolf Pack took a 26-21 lead.
Harris, who had 11 points at halftime, hit a 12-foot jumper with 1:20 to go and then had a steal and a dunk with a minute left in the half for a 30-23 Pack lead. Zouzoua closed the Pack scoring in the first half with an offensive rebound and a layup with 11 seconds to play.
Alford, though, sensed something was wrong with the Pack at the half.
“I could see that they weren’t feeling too good about the way they shot the ball in the first half,” Alford said. “I didn’t like our energy offensively in the first half.”
The Pack was just 4-of-15 on threes in the first half and finished the game just 6-of-25 (24 percent).
“I told them, ‘You held them to 26 points in the first half,’” Alford said. “Take pride in that. If you do that again in the second half, there’s no way we’ll lose the game. Wyoming is not going to come in here and score 52 points and beat us on our own floor.”
Wyoming, though, came out and scored 41 points in the second half and nearly stole the game. The Cowboys came into the game as the lowest scoring team in the Mountain West at 63 points a game.
It took Wyoming less than three minutes in the second half to wipe out the Wolf Pack’s halftime lead. Jake Hendricks converted a 4-point play (a 3-pointer and a free throw) to tie the game at 36-36 with 17:21 to go.
Thompson, who had no points in 11 first-half minutes, scored 10 points in the first six minutes of the second half as Wyoming also tied the game at 42-42.
Thompson, who finished with 16 points on four threes, connected on a pair of threes in the first minute of the second half as Wyoming cut the Pack lead to 34-32. He also had a pair of free throws to pull the Cowboys within 39-38 with just under 15 minutes left and his jumper cut the Pack lead to 42-40 with 14:21 left.
Wyoming took its first lead of the game at 44-42 with 12:39 to play on a dunk by Kenny Foster. The two teams then spent the remainder of the game taking turns with the lead. The lead changed hands a dozen times in the second half.
Zouzoua put the Pack up 45-44 with three free throws with 12:20 to go and gave the Pack a 47-46 lead with two more free throws a minute later. Jumpers by Harris and Johnson gave the Pack a 51-48 lead with just under 10 minutes to play and two Johnson free throws put the Pack up 53-51 with 8:44 left.
Wyoming, though, kept coming back. The Cowboys had leads of 46-45 on a pair of Kwane Marble free throws and 48-47 on a jumper by Maldonado. A 3-pointer by Foster evened things at 51-51 and another three by Thompson gave Wyoming a 54-53 lead with 7:37 to play.
The Cowboys stretched their lead to 58-55 with just under six minutes to go after a pair of free throws each by Thompson and Maldonado. Maldonado also broke free for a layup and a 60-57 Wyoming lead with just under five minutes left.
The Wolf Pack didn’t regain the lead until a 3-point play by Harris with 2:41 to go for a 62-60 lead. But a Marble layup quickly tied the game 17 seconds later.
Zouzoua missed a layup with the Wolf Pack trailing 65-64 with 39 seconds to go that nearly cost the Pack the victory.
“I missed that layup and I took responsibility for it,” Zouzoua said. “As a senior I have to make that type of play. But coach then challenged me (during a timeout with 30 seconds left) to go back out there and make a play.”
Zouzoua did exactly that, stealing the ball from Wyoming’s Foster and then scoring at the other end on a dunk for a 66-65 Pack lead with 25 seconds left.
“I wasn’t going to miss another layup,” Zouzoua said with a smile.
The Wolf Pack has now won 28 of its last 30 Mountain West games at home and 15 in a row.
“This game shows a little bit of growth, the way we were able to go out and make plays down the stretch to win the game,” Alford said. “We didn’t do that at San Jose State (in a 70-68 loss on Jan. 8). This team is learning valuable lessons about how hard it is to win.”
The Wolf Pack will play at Mountain West-leader San Diego State this Saturday night before returning to Lawlor to take on UNLV on Jan. 22 and New Mexico on Jan. 25.