Armon Johnson keys Wolf Pack’s second-half rebound
For the Nevada Appeal
RENO – David Carter wasn’t thrilled with the effort of his Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team Wednesday night in the first half.
“They (Fresno State) were getting the shots they wanted,” Carter said. “We didn’t start the game with any energy. You can’t start games like that.”
Point guard Armon Johnson raised his teammates’ energy level all by himself, scoring 14 of his 19 points in the second half, as the Pack held off the Fresno State Bulldogs, 74-70, in front of 5,479 fans at Lawlor Events Center.
The Wolf Pack, winners of 14 of their last 19 games, improved to 16-9 overall and 8-4 in the WAC. Fresno fell to 13-14, 6-7.
“Coach Carter told us we were lethargic in the first half,” Johnson said. “And I felt like I played poorly in the first half. I just wanted to come out and be aggressive.”
Johnson scored 14 points in the first nine minutes of the second half as the Pack wiped out a 43-37 halftime deficit to take a 60-58 lead.
“He was getting into the lane fairly easily,” Carter said. “He really sparked the team. So we just kept calling his number until they adjusted.”
The Bulldogs did adjust, holding Johnson scoreless over the final 11 minutes of the second half. That’s when Luke Babbitt took over.
“At the half we talked about coming out with more aggressiveness and energy,” said Babbitt, who finished with a game-high 27 points. “It just all came down to our effort. It’s not that we weren’t playing hard in the first half. But we definitely came out with a little extra effort in the second half.”
Babbitt hit a 3-pointer to give the Pack a 63-60 lead with 7 minutes, 43 seconds to play. Brandon Fields, who was 0-for-7 from the field and 2-of-19 over the last two games, also nailed a 3-pointer to give the Pack a 66-62 lead with 7:08 to go.
Fresno State, which beat the Wolf Pack in Fresno, 87-77, on Jan. 23, came back to tie the game at 66-66 on a layup by Mike Ladd with 5:46 to go.
“We need to start beating people earlier,” said Johnson with a smile. “Games like these are not, ideally, what you want. But this shows we never give up.”
Babbitt then went to work on Fresno’s Sylvester Seay.
Seay, whose 18 points keyed Fresno’s six-point halftime lead, fouled Babbitt twice in a span of 44 seconds. Babbitt hit all four of the free throws to give the Pack a 70-66 lead with 4:01 to play. The two fouls also fouled Seay out of the game with 22 points and nine rebounds.
“When he’s out of the game, it changes their team,” Carter said.
Babbitt added another pair of free throws for a 72-66 lead with 3:13 to play.
“No question, we want to blow everybody out,” Babbitt said. “But, realistically, that’s not going to happen. That’s also not going to happen in the tournament and that’s what we’re preparing for.”
Ladd turned a Wolf Pack turnover by Joey Shaw into another layup, cutting the Pack’s lead to just 72-70. Babbitt, though, came to the rescue again, putting the game away with another two free throws with 8.7 seconds left. The sophomore was 8-for-8 from the line (and 10-of-11 for the game) in the final 4:45.
Paul George, who missed the game against the Pack last month because of an ankle injury, led Fresno with 26 points (15-of-17 from the line). The difference between the Pack’s 10-point loss last month at Fresno and their four-point win on Wednesday, though, was Fresno’s Greg Smith.
The 6-foot-10 freshman scored 25 points in Fresno against the Pack and finished with just six (1-of-5 from the field in 23 minutes) in the rematch.
“We just played better defense on him before he could catch the ball,” Carter said. “He wasn’t catching the ball as deep as he was that night. We turned him into a passer.”
The Pack, which now faces three consecutive road games beginning with an ESPNU BracketBusters game Saturday at Missouri State, is now 12-1 at home.
“The energy we get at home is a key,” Carter said.
Carter said he is pleased with where the Pack is right now. The Wolf Pack has won four of its last five games and three games in a row, all by eight points or less.
“Against Utah State (a 79-72 overtime loss at home on Jan. 13), we went to overtime and they hit us in the mouth and we didn’t respond,” Carter said. “Now we’re responding to teams. That shows we’re growing up.”