Joe Santoro: Can’t be alarmed, but alarm needs to get set off
RENO — That loud ringing sound you heard throughout northern Nevada late Saturday afternoon was just the Nevada Wolf Pack’s wakeup call.
The Fresno State Bulldogs strolled into Lawlor Events Center and walked away with an 81-76 victory and the Wolf Pack’s aura of Mountain West invincibility.
“They outplayed us, they out-hustled us, they out-toughed us,” Wolf Pack senior Marcus Marshall said.
The Bulldogs brought the Wolf Pack back down to earth.
Before Saturday the Wolf Pack had not lost a home game since March 5, 2016. The Pack had won four games in a row and 11 of its last 12. They had not lost a game by more than two points since a season-opening 88-58 wakeup call at Saint Mary’s.
“They beat us,” said Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman of the Bulldogs. “There’s no other way, shape or form to describe it.”
The Bulldogs have now won three of four games in two seasons against Musselman’s Wolf Pack. No other Mountain West team has beaten a Musselman Wolf Pack team more than twice.
“That’s why this is tough to swallow,” senior D.J. Fenner said. “They beat us already this year (77-76 in Fresno on Dec. 31). We thought we’d come in here and leave this arena with a win.”
The Wolf Pack, though, probably should have seen this coming. Air Force, a team that had not won a game on the road all season and has never won a game in Reno, nearly walked out of Lawlor with a victory on Wednesday. The Wolf Pack built an easy 17-point lead in that game and then thought the friendly confines of Lawlor would deliver a victory. Before they knew it, though, the Pack had to hang on for dear life and escaped with an 83-76 victory.
That Air Force game should have been the Pack’s wake-up call. If the alarm would have gone off on Wednesday then maybe what we saw on Saturday against Fresno wouldn’t have happened.
“As a team we always make it an extra point to not lose at home,” Fenner said. “We just have to learn from this.”
That’s the most disturbing thing about the loss to Fresno State. It came at home, in front of 10,236 fans, the largest crowd at Lawlor since 11,341 showed up to watch the Pack beat UNLV 65-63 on Jan 23, 2016. Musselman’s Wolf Pack had lost just three times in 27 games at Lawlor before Saturday. The Pack had a chance to establish Lawlor as one of the toughest places to play in the Mountain West this week and Air Force and Fresno State spoiled the fun.
“We feel we let a lot of people down,” Fenner said. “There’s always some kid in the stands who has come to a game for the first time who wanted to see the Wolf Pack play and we didn’t do our job to make him or make her happy.”
The Pack, now 16-4 overall and 5-2 in the Mountain West, insist it was ready to play this week at home against Air Force and Fresno State. Nobody in silver and blue, at least publicly, is blaming the two lackluster efforts on overconfidence or a feeling of being too comfortable at home.
But nobody would have blamed them if they did.
The Pack, after all, came into this week off of a landmark win over San Diego State at home on Jan. 4, a miraculous 25-point comeback at New Mexico on Jan. 7 and an impressive 15-point win at Wyoming a week later. The result of those three victories saw the Pack all alone in first place in the Mountain West and the recipient of some votes in the Associated Press and Coach’s Top 25 rankings.
A letdown probably should have been expected.
“Not at all,” Marshall said.
“I thought we had a good week of practice,” Musselman said.
It was the games that were the problem.
Fresno State outrebounded the Wolf Pack 35-22. Air Force outrebounded the Pack 37-27. After the Air Force game Musselman warned everyone if his big men didn’t rebound better his team would lose to Fresno State.
Forwards Cam Oliver and Jordan Caroline then went out against Fresno State and proved their coach right. Oliver had three rebounds in 26 minutes and Caroline had three in 39.
“They (Fresno State) dominated the backboards in both games against us this year,” Musselman said. “Their front line destroyed our front line.”
Musselman normally makes it a rule to never criticize his players by name. He broke that rule after Saturday’s game.
Oliver didn’t score and had just one rebound in a mere six minutes in the first half because of foul trouble (two). He finished the night with eight points, three boards, two assists, three blocks and two steals in 26 minutes. The 6-foot-8 sophomore had 18 points and eight rebounds in 57 minutes in the two games this past week against Air Force and Fresno State.
“I’d love to give you an answer,” said Musselman, when asked about Oliver’s mini slump. “I’m at a loss, which doesn’t happen often.”
One loss certainly doesn’t ruin an outstanding season in the making, even if it comes at home against a team you wanted to desperately beat. Nobody is pushing the Pack panic button, even if 10,000-plus fans walked away from Lawlor wondering what they had just witnessed.
“It’s not about panic,” Fenner said. “But we do have to develop some desperation in situations like this. When you are afraid to lose that might bring out the best in you.”
This past week the Pack never even imagined they could lose. And it brought out the worst in them.
“This can be huge for us,” Fenner said, “especially if we see (Fresno State) again (in the Mountain West tournament in March). It’s like we told each other in the locker room. ‘Remember how we lost this game and let this pain motivate you.’”