Wolf Pack notebook: A look back at the Pack’s five conference tournament championships

Nevada coach Eric Musselman hoists the trophy after Nevada defeated Colorado State 79-71 in an NCAA college basketball game for the Mountain West Conference tournament championship Saturday, March 11, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Nevada coach Eric Musselman hoists the trophy after Nevada defeated Colorado State 79-71 in an NCAA college basketball game for the Mountain West Conference tournament championship Saturday, March 11, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

The first time the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team played in a conference postseason tournament game, northern Nevada lost sleep.
The Wolf Pack, now in its third season in the Big Sky Conference, found itself heading to a second overtime with the Montana Grizzlies on the night of March 5, 1982.
Northern Nevada was back home in Reno, watching the game at Idaho’s Kibbie Dome live on Channel 2 as Friday night turned into Saturday morning. By the time the game finally ended it was the early morning hours of March 6, 1982 and the Pack had somehow escaped with a 97-93 victory.
“A game like that has a thousand turning points,” Wolf Pack coach Sonny Allen said after it was over. “They had a thousand chances to win and so did we.”
The biggest turning point occurred in the final seconds of regulation. Montana was about to inbound the ball from under the Pack basket, leading 78-76 with just nine seconds left. The first postseason conference tournament game in Pack history looked like it would end in disappointment.
“If you play good basketball, you get some luck,” Allen said.
Montana’s Doug Selvig, for some reason, held the ball for more than the allotted five seconds and never passed the ball. The Pack took over with nine seconds left and saw guard B.B. Fontenet hit a short jumper to send the game to overtime at 78-78.
“Everything was perfect the last nine seconds,” Allen said.
Perfect and lucky.
Selvig, though, hit a 25-footer at the end of the first overtime to tie the game at 86-86. If the game was played a year later, when the Big Sky become one of the first conferences to adopt the 3-point shot, Selvig’s shot would have won the game.
The Pack, playing with three starters on the bench after they fouled out (Ken Green, Sam Mosley, Billy Allen), put the game away in front of a Kibbie Dome crowd of 8,150 in the second overtime. Fontenet and center Greg Palm combined to score nine of the Pack’s last 11 points. Fontenot (27 points) and Joe DeBraga each hit two free throws and Palm (28 points, 18 rebounds, four blocks) had a three-point play in the final two minutes to win it.
The first postseason conference tournament game in Wolf Pack history took northern Nevada’s breath away. The win over Montana put the Pack in the Big Sky tournament title game (just four teams made the tournament in 1982). The Pack was now one victory away from its first NCAA tournament, one of just 48 teams invited in 1982.
It didn’t happen as the Pack lost to Idaho, 85-80. But men’s basketball up on north Virginia Street was permanently changed forever because of what happened in the Kibbie Dome on a pair of cold March nights in 1982.
This year’s Wolf Pack will play in the Mountain West tournament next week in Las Vegas with the same goal as in 1982 -- win the tournament and go to the NCAA tournament.
The Wolf Pack has played in 37 postseason conference tournaments starting with the first one in March 1982.
The Pack went to 11 Big Sky tournaments, winning two, in 1984 and 1985. The Wolf Pack then went to six Big West Conference tournaments, getting to the title game twice (in 1995, 1997) but never winning. That was followed by 12 Western Athletic Conference tournaments with Pack titles in 2004 and 2006. This year will be the Pack’s ninth Mountain West postseason party and so far just one (2017) has ended with the Pack cutting down the nets.
That’s just five conference tournament titles (1984, 1985, 2004, 2006, 2017) for the Pack over 39 (1982-2020) years. Those 39 years also produced eight heartbreaking losses in the tournament title game, leaving the Pack one game short of an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament each time, though they did go to four other NCAA tournaments (2005, 2007, 2018, 2019) when they failed to even get to the conference tournament championship game.
A look back at the Wolf Pack’s five conference tournament championships over the past four decades . . .

1984: Dee Events Center (Ogden, Utah)
The Wolf Pack finished just 7-7 and in third place in the Big Sky in the 1983-84 season. The Pack, though, was extremely motivated after losing in the conference title game the past two seasons, especially after a loss to Weber State at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in 1983.
The Pack opened the 1984 Big Sky tournament by stunning regular season champion Weber State 85-68. Curtis High had 26 points and Dannie Jones had 25 as the Pack used an 11-2 run to start the second half to take a 52-39 lead. “We did not anticipate Reno would play that well,” said Montana coach Mike Montgomery, after his Grizzlies beat Montana State 76-64 to get to the title game against the Wolf Pack.
The title game involved one of the greatest plays in Wolf Pack postseason history. Jones intercepted a pass from Montana’s Rob Hurley with the game tied at 69-69 with seven seconds left in regulation. He then sprinted the length of the court for a game-winning layup, sending the Pack to its first-ever NCAA tournament.
“It’s poetic justice we won the Big Sky Championship on a steal because that’s what got us this far this season,” Pack coach Sonny Allen said.
Montana’s Larry Krystkowiak had 22 points and 12 rebounds. He would get his revenge 22 years later in 2006, upsetting the Pack in the NCAA tournament as head coach of the Grizzlies.
High had 20 points and Jones had 17 in the program-changing win in 1984. “We weren’t good in November and December,” Allen said. “In January we were fair. We were good in February and in March we have been great. I hope we stay that way.”
The Pack would lose in its first NCAA tournament game, 64-54 to Washington in Pullman, Wash., despite 21 points by High.

1985: Boise State Pavilion (Boise, Id.)
The Pack won the Big Sky regular season title in 1984-85 but had to travel to Boise State for the conference tournament. A crowd of 7,889 greeted them in their first game against Idaho and almost all of them were rooting for the home-state Vandals. The Pack, behind 25 points from Dwayne Randall and 19 from Rob Harden survived the upset scare, 83-80. Idaho led 59-50 with 15 minutes to go. “We were a little overconfident,” Randall said.
The Pack’s reward for beating Idaho was a matchup against the home team Boise State Broncos. This time the crowd was 9,153 and the Pack, which swept two regular season games against the Broncos, extended its winning streak to seven with a convincing 79-67 win. Randall had 17 points and 12 rebounds and High had 28 points.
The Pack, now one victory away from its second consecutive NCAA tournament, had to face its third team in a row from the state of Idaho in the title game. Idaho State, though, was just 15-16 going into the game and had already lost twice to the Pack that season, allowing 102 and 100 points.
The Pack, as expected, whipped Idaho State 79-63 as tournament Most Valuable Player Randall had 14 points and 13 rebounds, High had 21 points and Tony Sommers had 18 points and eight boards.
“We can win some games in the NCAA tournament,” said Allen, who became the first and still the only Pack coach to win more than one conference tournament. “Last year I didn’t think we could. But this year I do.”
The Pack lost in its only NCAA tournament game in 1985, 65-56 to North Carolina State in Albuquerque, N.M.

2004: Save Mart Arena (Fresno State)
It was now nearly 20 years since the Wolf Pack’s last NCAA tournament appearance. But Pack confidence was high after finishing first in the Western Athletic Conference regular season in 2003-04. The Pack, after all, lost in the WAC Tournament title game in 2003 to Tulsa in Tulsa.
“This year our goals are a little different,” forward Kirk Snyder said. “It’s to win a WAC championship.”
The Wolf Pack beat three teams from the state of Texas to win the WAC tournament and go to their first NCAA tournament in 19 years.
The Pack beat SMU 75-60 behind 22 points from Snyder and 18 from Todd Okeson to open the tournament. Pack coach Trent Johnson, though, called a timeout just 51 seconds in the game when he didn’t like the way the Pack started the game. “I had a seizure,” Johnson said. “I had a heart attack. I didn’t like what I saw.”
Johnson liked what he saw in the semifinals and finals.
Snyder scored 20 and Jermaine Washington and Kevinn Pinkney each had 12 points and combined for 19 rebounds as the Pack beat Rice 67-59 in the semifinals. The victory was the Pack’s 22nd of the year, setting its school record since it joined Division I in 1970.
The title game was against UTEP in front of a crowd of just 3,520 (host Fresno State was eliminated in the first round). About a third of the crowd was from northern Nevada.
Snyder had 11 points and 14 rebounds but he teamed with Garry Hill-Thomas to shoot just 4-of-26 from the floor. The Pack made just 31 percent of its shots. Pinkney had 15 points and Okeson had 14.
“You can’t credit me for the past 20 years,” Snyder said, talking about the 19 years since the Pack last made the NCAA tournament. “I’ve only been here for three. But this is good for all the players who played on Wolf Pack teams. Hopefully they’ll feel good about this.”
After the game Johnson said, “I don’t care if we play a NBA all-star team (in the NCAA tournament.”
The Pack would go on to earn its first-ever NCAA tournament wins, beating Michigan State and Gonzaga to get to the Sweet 16. The dream of a national title ended with a loss to Georgia Tech.

2006: Lawlor Events Center (Reno)
The year before (2005) the Pack stunned northern Nevada by losing its opening game in the WAC tournament to Boise State at Lawlor Events Center under new head coach Mark Fox.
It took the Pack a full year to erase the memory of what happened against Boise in March 2005.
The Pack brought an 11-game winning streak into the tournament in 2006, which was also at Lawlor.
The Pack beat a four-win Idaho team 68-55 in the tournament opener as Nick Fazekas had 20 points. Idaho, the eighth seed in the tournament like Boise in 2005, fired its coach (Leonard Perry) a few hours after the game.
The Pack then beat New Mexico State 70-59 in the semifinals in front of a crowd of 8,216. Marcelus Kemp had 25 points and Fazekas pumped in another 20.
The title game was against Utah State, the school that beat the Pack at Lawlor Events Center in the opening round of the Big West tournament at Lawlor in 1996.
The Pack squeezed out a 70-63 victory in overtime against Utah State as Fazekas, the tournament MVP, scored 23 with 14 rebounds. The crowd of 9,436 sent the Pack off to its third consecutive NCAA tournament. “That was as loud as I think this place has ever been,” Fazekas said.
The home court advantage might have played a part in the Pack win. The Wolf Pack was 20-of-25 from the line and Utah State was just 7-of-14.
The win over Utah State is still the Pack’s only postseason conference tournament title after 11 tournaments in Reno.
The Pack, though, took all of its momentum from winning the WAC tourney title and suffered arguably the most shocking upset loss in program history, losing to Montana of the Big Sky Conference in its first game in the NCAA tournament in 2006.

2017: Thomas & Mack Center (Las Vegas)
The Wolf Pack, which had not been to the NCAA tournament in a decade, won the Mountain West regular season title in 2016-17. But the Wolf Pack was still not a lock to get to the NCAA tournament heading into the conference tournament in Las Vegas.
The Wolf Pack opened the tournament by trouncing Utah State 83-69. Jordan Caroline had 22 points, Cam Oliver had 19 and Marcus Marshall had 14.
The Pack, though, found itself down 32-21 at halftime in the semifinals against Fresno State. The Wolf Pack was just 6-of-30 from the floor in the first half and was fortunate to be down just 11 at the break.
That all changed in the second half. The Pack was 19-of-24 from the floor after halftime and rolled to an 83-72 win. Marshall had 28 points and Oliver had 27 and both players had five 3-pointers.
“That was our worst half in the first half since we’ve been together,” said Pack coach Eric Musselman, now in his second season at Nevada. “And that might have been our best half in the second half since we’ve been together.”
The Pack beat Colorado State 79-71 to win the tournament and go to its first NCAA tournament since 2007. Caroline had 23 points and 10 rebounds and was named the tournament MVP. Marshall had 21 and Oliver had just four points but also pulled down a crucial 14 rebounds.
A Las Vegas crowd (which included former Pack coach Trent Johnson) of just 5,602 showed up to watch the Wolf Pack party.
The Pack lost to Iowa State in Milwaukee in the NCAA tournament’s first round. 

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