Pack one win away from NIT Final Four
For the Nevada Appeal
RENO – A rowdy and supportive Lawlor Events Center crowd gave the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team a very valuable farewell gift Sunday afternoon.
A second-round National Invitation Tournament victory.
“There was energy in the building from start to finish,” Wolf Pack coach David Carter said after a 75-67 victory over the Bucknell Bison in front of 6,927 enthusiastic fans. “The crowd stayed with us for 40 minutes.”
The Wolf Pack will meet the winner of Monday night’s Illinois State at Stanford game on Wednesday night. The Pack would host Illinois State in Reno at the Reno Events Center in downtown Reno (Lawlor will not be available) or play at Stanford. The winner on Wednesday will head to the NIT Final Four at New York’s Madison Square Garden on March 27-29.
“We fed off that energy for the whole game,” Wolf Pack junior guard Malik Story said. “When you hit big shots in front of a crowd like that, the crowd gets excited and then it gets you excited.”
The Wolf Pack, now 28-6, excited the crowd right from the start.
Senior forward Olek Czyz scored 12 of the Pack’s first 18 points and 18 of the first 30 as Nevada took a 10-point (30-20) lead with five minutes to play in the first half.
“They kind of knocked us back on our heels,” Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said.
Czyz dominated inside and out, scoring in a variety of ways. He hit a 3-pointer for an 11-5 lead and went back inside for consecutive buckets in the lane for an 18-7 lead. The Reno High graduate, playing his final game at Lawlor, then scored in the lane for a 28-19 lead and threw down a dunk for a 30-20 advantage.
“I just felt I needed to come out and be aggressive,” said Czyz of his 18 points in the game’s first 15 minutes. “I just wanted to go right at them and felt like I had a mismatch all night.”
“It was obvious the guys we had on him had no chance of guarding him,” Paulsen said.
The Bison (25-10), however, recovered from Czyz’s fast start to close within 32-28 on a 3-pointer by Cameron Ayers (21 points) with 3:07 to go in the half. The Pack, though, went on a 10-1 run over the final three minutes of the half to take a 42-29 lead at the break.
“I thought our guys got a little tired at the end of the half,” Paulsen said.
Story, who scored 16 of his 18 points in the first half, keyed the first-half closing run with six points.
“Story just went on a tear,” Paulsen said. “He hit some tough shots. Our plan in this game was to try to make them hit tough shots. And we did that. But Story made some tough plays and that is the mark of a good player.”
“I just fed off the crowd,” Story said.
The Bison, which lost in the Patriot League title game to Lehigh, went on an 8-2 run to start the second half to pull within 44-37. Center Mike Muscala scored in the lane to open the run.
The 6-foot-11 Muscala finished with big numbers — a game-high 25 points and 15 rebounds — but he was never able to just take over the game thanks to the Pack defense by 6-foot-8 center Dario Hunt and 6-10 backup Devonte Elliott.
“They gave me some double teams,” said Muscala, who converted 8-of-15 shots (9-of-10 from the line). “He’s (Hunt) is a good player, a physical player.”
“We just tried to mix it up against him,” Carter said. “We knew the guy in the middle (Muscala) would be tough. But we just tried to keep changing our looks defensively against him. Dario was able to play well physically with him and move him out of the areas he wanted to be in.”
The Bison, though, pressure the Pack the entire game despite falling behind by 13 at halftime.
“A lesser team could have folded at the half,” Paulsen said. “I’m proud of our guys. We kept fighting.”
So did the Wolf Pack.
Kevin Panzer came off the bench to drain a 3-pointer for a 54-42 lead with 13 minutes to play. The sophomore also had a big three-point play off an offensive rebound for a 57-45 lead with 11:21 left.
“Panzer hit a big 3-point shot, Jordan Finn came in cold and hit a big free throw, Patrick Nyeko gave us good energy defensively, Devonte Elliott played well,” said Carter, reviewing the play from his bench. “We don’t ask a lot out of those guys because they don’t play big minutes but when they do get out there we need them to give us energy and make an impact on the game and that’s what they did.”
Elliott hit a 15-foot jumper from the left side for a 60-52 lead with 8:51 to play and Czyz scored in the lane for a 62-52 lead a minute later. But Bucknell, which beat Arizona last Wednesday night in Tucson (65-54) in the school’s first-ever NIT game, again fought back.
Muscala had a 3-point play to cut the Pack lead to 62-55 and Bryan Cohen hit a 3-pointer from the corner to slice it to just 66-60 with 3:24 left.
“They (Bucknell) did a nice job defensively in the second half,” Carter said. “They stayed with their man defense but they started to sag a little more, forcing us to shoot from the outside.”
A 3-pointer by Bucknell’s Bryson Johnson cut the Pack lead to just 68-65 with just under two minutes to play. But, just like they did to close out the first half, the Pack dominated the final minutes of the game.
Czyz hit a pair of free throws for a 70-65 lead with 1:33 to play and Finn hit a free throw for a 71-67 lead with 36 seconds left.
Bucknell, once again, also seemed to be running out of gas in the final minutes of the game. Johnson missed a 3-pointer badly with 20 seconds left (and also with seven seconds to go) and Joe Willman turned the ball over with 14 seconds to play.
“We’re not a deep team,” Paulsen said. “We’ve been on the road a long time (the Bison went directly from Tucson to Reno) and that’s tough, especially playing at altitude, which we’re not used to. Everyone would have rather played this game (Saturday night). But it is what it is. Give Nevada credit. That’s a very good college basketball team.”
Point guard Deonte Burton (10 points, five rebounds, four assists, three turnovers) made four free throws in the final 13 seconds to ice the victory and send the Pack into the NIT’s Elite Eight. The Pack is also just one away from equaling the 2006-07 team’s school record of 29 victories.
“I really enjoyed the atmosphere,” said Czyz, who finished with a team-high 24 points. “I glad we have at least another game to play. I never want it to end.”