Joe Santoro: (Almost) too comfortable at home | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: (Almost) too comfortable at home

Joe Santoro
Joe Santoro

RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack was reminded Wednesday night that home court advantage and fancy winning streaks won’t necessarily win basketball games all by themselves.

“We got complacent,” guard Lindsey Drew said. “We relaxed. We didn’t have the same fire.”

The Wolf Pack, playing their first home game in two weeks in front of 8,462 fans at Lawlor Events Center, built a 17-point lead just 15 seconds into the second half against the Air Force Falcons.

Game over.

Or so the Wolf Pack thought.

The Falcons, who had not won a game away from home all season, were obviously not impressed with that 17-point Wolf Pack lead. They also weren’t paying any attention to the fact the Pack had not lost a home game all season long and was coming off two eye-opening victories on the road at New Mexico and Wyoming.

With the Wolf Pack obviously thinking Lawlor would just carry them to an easy victory, Air Force needed just 11 minutes to tie the game at 59-59. The Pack lead was just 66-64 with five minutes to go before senior Marcus Marshall, as he’s done all season long, put his teammates on his back and prevented an embarrassing loss.

“We just stopped playing,” said Marshall, who scored 11 of his 25 points in the final 2:44 to secure a closer-than-it-should-have-been 83-76 Pack win.

The Falcons, now just 9-10 this season and 0-7 away from home, might have done the Pack a huge favor. The Falcons reminded the Wolf Pack of how fragile such things as home court advantage and winning streaks can be on a night-to-night basis.

“We took our lead for granted,” said senior D.J. Fenner, who scored a game-high 30 points, 21 in the first half. “We let them back in the game.”

The Wolf Pack, which has now won four games in a row and 11 of its last 12, learned they can’t expect their shiny 16-3 record, as well as their perfect 8-0 record at home, to win games for them.

“There were definitely a lot of things we normally do well that we didn’t do tonight,” Fenner said.

The Wolf Pack were outrebounded 37-27. They turned the ball over 13 times. Forwards Jordan Caroline and Cam Oliver had a total of two offensive rebounds between them against a team who played just one player taller than 6-foot-7 for a mere five minutes (the 6-9 Dane Morman).

“You can think that Cam Oliver and Jordan Caroline would have more than two offensive rebounds between them in the minutes they played (68 combined), but they didn’t,” Pack coach Eric Musselman said. “We’ll play better on Saturday (against Fresno State at home).”

Musselman wasn’t about to coach his team in the media Wednesday night. The Pack coach, who’s now 40-17 in his Nevada career, chose to focus on the positive instead of all the teaching moments the Pack put on file Wednesday night.

“Any game is hard to win,” Musselman said.

The Pack clearly made this game much harder than it needed to be. Air Force lost its first two Mountain West games on the road at Wyoming and Colorado State by an average of 19.5 points. They should have limped out of Lawlor by a similar margin after handing the Pack a 17-point lead a minute into the second half.

But the Wolf Pack, obviously overflowing with confidence after a 25-point comeback win at New Mexico and a 15-point win at Wyoming, thought they were good enough to take their foot off the gas pedal against the Falcons. They’re not. This Pack team, which routinely plays five guys 30 or more minutes a game, remains a fragile bunch despite its fancy record and winning streak.

“We kept the fans in the building,” smiled Musselman. “That’s a positive. Nobody was leaving with three minutes to play. Hopefully they will all come back on Saturday.”

The Wolf Pack fans filled Lawlor the final five minutes or so with a nervous energy that could be felt on the court. The Pack didn’t really put the Falcons away until Marshall hit a pair of 3-pointers 66 seconds apart for a 76-68 lead with 1:18 to go.

Fenner and Marshall won this game almost by themselves. Oliver, who was benched at the beginning of the game because he was late for a film session this week, never really seemed to be engaged the entire game. He had just three points and three rebounds in 14 first-half minutes and also turned the ball over twice.

The sophomore finished with 10 points, five boards, two assists, two steals and a block in 31 minutes and did some nice things in the second half.

He connected on a pair of eight-foot jumpers from the left side of the lane, for example, but seemed satisfied to take a secondary role all night long.

The Wolf Pack need Oliver to be on time for every single film session, practice and game and they need him to remind everyone on a nightly basis of why he’s considered one of top talents in the Mountain West. A mere 10 points, five rebounds in 31 minutes from Oliver isn’t going to get the Pack to the NCAA tournament.

Musselman, though he never criticizes a player by name, was more upset with Oliver’s (and Caroline’s) defense against the Falcons than he was about their offense. Air Force normally lives and dies with the 3-point shot. Their .397 success rate on threes entering Wednesdays game led the conference. Against the Wolf Pack they scored 28 points in the paint and attacked the basket almost at will when they rallied to get back in the game.

“Our interior defense has got to get better,” Musselman said. “Our defense inside was a major problem. And if we rebound like we did tonight we’ll have no chance of beating Fresno. None.”

The Wolf Pack broke rule No. 1 in the Musselman coaching handbook. They stopped playing with maximum effort and tried to coast to a victory.

“We didn’t come out (in the second half) and play like we did in the first half,” Marshall said. “Air Force started playing with more energy than us.”

That should never happen with a Musselman team. The opposing team should never have more energy than the Wolf Pack.

“It’s something we need to learn from,” Fenner said.