Technicals provide spark for Wolf Pack
RENO ” March Madness arrived early at Lawlor Events Center Friday night.
“That was awesome,” freshman forward Luke Babbitt said after the Nevada Wolf Pack’s 71-70 ESPN BracketBuster victory over the Virginia Commonwealth Rams. “That was the loudest I’ve ever heard it in here.”
The Lawlor crowd of 6,205 pumped up the volume when Wolf Pack head coach Mark Fox was ejected with 8:20 to play after receiving his second technical foul and his team trailing 60-51. The Wolf Pack outscored the Rams 20-10 the rest of the way with assistant coach David Carter running the team.
“I plan on being the coach at Nevada for a very long time,” Fox said. “But when the day comes that I leave here, David Carter proved tonight why he should be the next head coach at Nevada.”
It was Fox’s two technical fouls in the span of 18 seconds (on the game clock), though, that proved to be the intensity boost the Wolf Pack has been searching for at home all season. The Pack, now 16-10 overall, improved to 9-6 at home and broke a two-game losing streak at Lawlor.
“We haven’t played well at home this year,” Fox said. “And that has nothing to do with our fans. It has more to do with our tradition. We have a very young team and they have felt the weight of trying to uphold the tradition of this program. Hopefully, we can take this game and build it forward.”
The Pack found itself down 64-56 with 4:38 to play after a pair of free throws by VCU’s Bradford Burgess. Brandon Fields then hit a 3-pointer to start the Pack’s comeback.
“We knew we had to come together as a team with coach Fox out of the game,” said Fields, who scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half. “We wanted to get this win for coach Fox.”
Malik Cooke then put back an offensive rebound off a missed 3-pointer by Fields and drew a foul. Cooke drained the free throw for a three-point play, cutting the Rams’ lead to 64-62 with 3:19 left.
The crowd, which booed the officials off the floor at halftime, was now firmly in the game.
“The fans got into it,” Virginia Commonwealth coach Anthony Grant said. “They got in our heads.”
“There was no way to describe it,” remarked Pack guard Armon Johnson, referring to the fans.
Virginia Commonwealth, though, took a 67-64 lead on a driving lay-up by point guard Eric Maynor with 1:35 to play. The next 1:34, though, belonged to the Wolf Pack.
Johnson, who finished with 13 points and eight assists, hit a 12-foot jumper to pull the Pack within 67-66 with a minute to play. The Pack point guard, who beat Hawaii with a last-second shot last Saturday, then drained a short jumper to the right of the basket for a 68-67 lead with 30 seconds to go after a Nevada time-out. It was the Pack’s first lead since late in the first half (28-27).
“Coach (Carter) called a play for me and I was lucky to make the shot,” Johnson said. “I’m so grateful the coaches have faith in me.”
Maynor, who finished with a game-high 28 points, struggled down the stretch. He missed a short jumper in the lane with 50 seconds to play that would have put the Rams up by three.
After Johnson’s shot gave the Pack the lead, Maynor found himself wide open in front of the basket again but missed the shot. Nevada’s Joey Shaw grabbed the rebound, drew a foul and hit two free throws for a 70-67 Pack lead with 13.7 seconds to play.
“We needed to get some big rebounds down the stretch but we didn’t,” Grant said.
Maynor attempted a game-tying 3-pointer over Johnson with four seconds to play and missed yet again.
“We just tried to get him off balance,” Johnson said. “Coach told me to step up and play defense and that’s what I tried to do.”
Babbitt grabbed the rebound after Maynor’s missed 3-pointer, drew another foul and made one of two free throws for a 71-67 lead with 1.8 seconds to play. Virginia Commonwealth guard Joey Rodriguez, though, drilled a 75-foot shot at the buzzer to make the final 71-70.
“The last six minutes of the game we stopped being the aggressor,” Grant said. “And they turned up the intensity.”
Much of that intensity came from Fox’s temper.
“I don’t have freedom of speech,” said Fox, referring to his freedom to criticize the officials. “I’d like to challenge that now but I can’t. I did deserve the first (technical). I asked for it. But the second one I don’t think I deserved. But if I could have gotten a third one, I would have.”
A young Wolf Pack team just might have grown up Friday night.
“Coach Fox prepared us for moments just like that,” said Johnson of the final eight-plus minutes with Fox in the locker room.
“They knew to play just like we always play,” said Fox of his absence down the stretch. “There are days (in practice) when I just coach the defense and coach Carter coaches the offense and vice versa. There are days when I sit 30 rows up in the stands by myself to just get a bird’s-eye view. The message doesn’t change whether I’m there or not.”