Babbitt carries Pack to win in season finale
For the Nevada Appeal
RENO – Luke Babbitt figured the best gift he could give the Nevada Wolf Pack seniors Saturday night was a victory over the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs.
Babbitt’s 29 points, seven rebounds and four assists was exactly what the Pack needed to close out its regular season with a 79-68 victory over Louisiana Tech on Senior Night in front of 7,558 fans at Lawlor Events Center.
“That meant everything to us, to send the seniors out with a win,” Babbitt said.
The victory, and New Mexico State’s loss at Utah State on Saturday, gave the Wolf Pack second place in the Western Athletic Conference at 19-11 overall and 11-5 in the WAC. The Wolf Pack will play Idaho Thursday night at 6 p.m. in its WAC tournament opener at Lawlor.
“We never want to lose at home,” said Pack guard Armon Johnson, who contributed 13 points and five assists. “Never. No more losses.”
The Wolf Pack trailed Louisiana Tech for just 88 seconds, all in the first two minutes of the game. The Pack led by as much as 17 (37-20 with 5:27 to go in the first half) and never let the Bulldogs get closer than five (69-64 with 3:33 to go) in the second half.
“It was a good win,” said Brandon Fields, one of four seniors honored before the game with Joey Shaw, Ray Kraemer and Richie Phillips (out all year with an injury). “Luke carried us.”
Babbitt had 13 points and three 3-pointers as the Pack built a 41-28 halftime lead. He hit two early threes to give the Pack a 10-5 lead four minutes into the game and hit another for a 30-16 lead with 8:22 to go in the half.
“I was just taking what the defense gave me,” said Babbitt, who led the Pack in scoring for the first time in four games. “They were backing off me a little. Coach (David) Carter has been telling me to take that shot. It helps open up the defense for everyone else.”
Babbitt hit his fourth and final 3-pointer with 9:50 left in the game for a 59-47 lead. But it was Kraemer who might have drained the most important 3-pointer for the Pack, connecting from long distance with 3:16 to play for a 72-64 lead.
Kraemer, who was honored with his first start this year (and second of his three-year Pack career), had two 3-pointers and seven points. Fields finished with 13 points and seven rebounds and Shaw ended up with seven points as the three seniors combined for 27 points, 15 rebounds and three assists (all by Fields).
“It was emotional for me,” Fields said. “I told my cousin back home that I wasn’t going to cry. But when I was standing out there with my mom, I choked up a little. But that’s OK. I play with a lot of great players. It was OK for me to be a little emotional out there.”
Pack coach David Carter sensed a different energy from his seniors on Saturday.
“Oh, yes, I think so,” Carter said. “As much as I told them to not play out of character, I think they did a little, especially at the start. It’s just emotion. They were doing some things out of character, like rushing shots. But I kind of expected that.”
Babbitt was always around to help his emotional teammates. His layup with 2:26 to play gave the Pack a 74-66 lead and his bullet pass to a streaking Fields under the basket for a layup gave the Pack a 77-68 lead with 59 seconds to play. His two free throws with 36 seconds to play put the finishing touches on the Pack’s 14th victory at home in 15 games this year.
Carter, though, said he didn’t think the Pack saw the Bulldogs at their best. The Bulldogs’ leading scorer, guard Kyle Gibson (19.8 per game), missed the last two games with an injury and was scoreless in 18 minutes against the Pack. Forward Olu Ashaolu (6-7), who had 14 points and 12 rebounds in the Bulldogs’ 77-71 victory over the Pack on Jan. 2 in Ruston, La., also played just 18 minutes and had just five points and one rebound.
“They played a lot of backups,” Carter said. “I just think they were getting ready for Thursday (the opening of the WAC tournament), to be honest with you.”
The Wolf Pack, though, had all it could handle at times with Louisiana Tech’s 6-foot-11 center Magnum Rolle. Rolle, who had just 11 points and three rebounds against the Wolf Pack in early January, had 22 points and a game-high 17 rebounds. It was his short jumper with 3:33 to play that cut the Pack’s lead to just 69-64.
“At times he’s unstoppable,” Babbitt said. “We were just trying not to let him get on a roll. We didn’t want Rolle to get on a roll.”
That comment brought a smile to Babbitt’s face. It was that type of night for the Pack.
“You know, you can always get better,” said Babbitt, when asked if the Pack is playing its best basketball at the most important time of the year. “We played far from a perfect game. There are always things to clean up. And that’s what we’re going to do.”