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Wolf Pack edges scrappy Idaho State

BY DARRELL MOODY

Nevada Appeal Sports Writer

RENO ” It certainly wasn’t the way you want to see your basketball team play with a game against undefeated and top-ranked North Carolina just four days away.

Nevada shot a below-average 37.5 percent from the field and needed some late heroics by Luke Babbitt and Brandon Fields to hold off Idaho State 68-63 before a crowd of 5,938 at Lawlor Events Center on Saturday.

The win upped Nevada’s record to 7-5 entering Wednesday’s nonconference finale against the Tar Heels. Idaho State, which has played the toughest schedule in the country this season, dropped to 2-10.

“We were lucky that we won when we didn’t play well,” said Nevada coach Mark Fox, whose team was outscored 40-36 in the second half. “That is no disrespect to Idaho State. Hopefully we can learn those lessons in a win, not a loss.

“Idaho State is a great group. I was disappointed in a lot of ways in how we played. You’ve got to give Idaho State credit. They are a scrappy group. We didn’t defend well in the second half. We’re not defending (well) with a lead and we’re not defending well away from our bench.”

Nevada led 45-33 with 12 minutes, 18 seconds left in the game, but the Bengals, led by Amorrow Morgan (19 points) went on a 19-7 run to pull into a 52-all tie with 5:46 left on a three-point play by Morrow, who had seven points in that span. Babbitt had Nevada’s only two field goals in that stretch.

“I liked my basketball team in the second half,” Idaho State coach Joe O’Brien said. “We dug a hole as deep as 14 points (actually 12 in the second half), and we got busy. We’ve done this on several occasions.

“The first half was offensive rebounds and turnovers by ISU. If we can do what we did in the first half in the second half on the defensive boards and take care of the basketball ….”

The teams were tied at 54-all and Fields drained two free throws with 4:48 left to give Nevada a 56-54 lead. That set the stage for a crucial play. After a Bengals miss, Nevada came down and Malik Cooke, who finished with a career-high 15 points, scored on a controversial putback to make it 58-54 with 4:14 left.

O’Brien said the ball could have possibly been on the rim when Cooke made contact, but that the play was not a difference maker.

The Bengals cut the lead to 62-60 with 1:06 left on a three-point play by Chron Tatum, who scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half.

Babbitt, who didn’t score a field goal for the first 30-plus minutes of the game, made a 16-footer for a 64-60 lead with 51 seconds remaining. Idaho State turned the ball over and missed on its next two possessions, and Fields scored on a layup and free throw for a 67-63 lead.

Fields scored 10 of his 12 in the final half.

“I struggled at the beginning with shooting, so I had to be more aggressive,” Fields said. “I had a smaller guard on me so I had to capitalize.”

Neither team shot the ball well in the first 8 1/2 minutes of the game which found the teams locked in an 11-all. Nevada was 4 for its first 14 while Idaho State was a shade better at 4-for-12.

The Wolf Pack picked it up offensively, outscoring the Bengals 17-3 over the next 5-plus minutes. It was a combination of good defense and better shooting.

Nevada’s Ahyaro Phillips started the surge with an impressive putback at the 11-minute mark and, after Delvidas Busma missed a slam dunk at the other end, Joey Shaw buried a 3-pointer to make it 16-11.

Idaho State’s Morgan scored on a driving layup, but Nevada scored 10 of the next 12 to go ahead 28-15, its biggest lead of the contest.

“We were untrusting of each other in the first half, not selfish per se, but untrusting of each other,” Fox said. “Give Idaho State credit because they got the game where they wanted it.”

According to O’Brien, the Bengals did that by dropping three people back on defense once they put up a shot at the offensive end. That meant that Nevada was forced to play a half-court game.

– Contact Darrell Moody at dmoody@nevadaappeal.com or (775) 881-1281