Joe Santoro: Here he comes to save the day | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Here he comes to save the day

Joe Santoro
For the Appeal
Joe Santoro

RENO — The adventures of Mighty Muss are really getting interesting now.

Eric Musselman doesn’t wear yellow tights on the Nevada Wolf Pack bench over his bulging muscles. He doesn’t sport a red cape or fly through the air with a fist in the air. But there was Mighty Muss Saturday night in Albuquerque, N.M., coming to save the day for the Wolf Pack once again.

“We talk about respect, respect, respect all the time,” the Wolf Pack men’s basketball coach said on Monday. “I was just real disappointed in our effort.”

It was time for Mighty Muss to fight some crime. It just so happened this time the crime was being committed by his own Wolf Pack. The Wolf Pack found itself down 67-45 to the New Mexico Lobos with 13:10 to play and Mighty Muss was disappointed. And nobody wants to disappoint Mighty Muss.

“We came to the huddle and we were down big,” Wolf Pack senior Marcus Marshall said. “Coach Muss, he has this clipboard that he writes things down on and he just came to the huddle and dropped the clipboard on the ground and it said “blowout” in big letters.”

It was as if Mighty Muss had just made a huge fist, flew through the air and smacked them all right in the mouth. The effect couldn’t have been more powerful if it was delivered by a muscle-bound mouse in yellow tights and a cape.

“Guys took that to heart,” Marshall said. “How we were playing was unacceptable. Guys were fired up and yelling.”

Musselman, as always, knew exactly what he was doing.

“Our guys have too much pride to get blown out,” Musselman said.

The Wolf Pack still trailed by 25 with 11 minutes to go, 19 with 7:40 to go and 14 with 90 seconds left. So the clipboard trick took a while to work. Musselman even put seldom-used John Carlson in the game with nine minutes left and Charlie Tooley with 2:48 remaining. That’s not a coach fighting to win a game. That’s a coach trying to teach his team a tough lesson.

“Jordan (Caroline) was the only one out there playing super hard,” Marshall said. “We just weren’t giving enough effort.”

“He (Musselman) was upset,” Caroline said. “We were playing pretty flat. I was upset, too.”

The Wolf Pack had trailed by more than 25 points just twice before since Musselman took over the program before the 2015-16 season. They got down by 36 at Wichita State on Dec. 22, 2015 and 27 at Fresno State on Jan. 6, 2016 and both those games didn’t turn out well. The Pack lost by 29 at Wichita and 22 at Fresno and Musselman saw a similar result coming on Saturday.

It wasn’t until Caroline stole the ball away from New Mexico’s Jalen Harris and fed Tooley for a 3-pointer, cutting the deficit to 90-79 with 63 seconds to go, Musselman genuinely thought the Pack had a chance to win. And a chance is all a coach like Musselman needs. When you’re trailing by 22 with 13 minutes to go or 25 with 11 minutes to go, sometimes a harshly-worded clipboard is all you have in your coaching bag of tricks. But when a 6-foot freshman from Granite Bay, Calif., who had yet to score a single point in his college career, has the courage to calmly drain a 3-pointer with 63 seconds to go at The Pit, well, it takes a bit more than a clipboard.

“When Charlie Tooley took that step-back three in transition, at that moment I just thought, ‘We can actually win this game,’” Musselman said.

It was clearly time for Mighty Muss to put on the cape and make a fist.

“It was just spur of the moment,” Musselman said. “I called a timeout after Charlie Tooley hit that shot and put Marcus Marshall back in.”

“I just thought, ‘Is he serious?’” Marshall said.

Dead serious.

“I knew he wasn’t putting me back out there just to be out there,” Marshall said. “I just knew at that moment I just had to go for broke.”

Marshall started throwing up wild threes from, it seemed, Las Cruces. The shots appeared to bounce off The Pit’s rafters, backboard and rim before falling through the net. New Mexico suddenly became scared to death to make a free throw in its own gym. The Pack couldn’t miss, making their last seven 3-pointers in regulation to send the game to overtime.

“Even when we were down in overtime (103-98 with just over a minute to play), we still thought we could win,” Musselman said.

The Wolf Pack would indeed win the game in overtime, 105-104.

as Caroline hit a 3-pointer with three seconds to play. This team will never think it’s going to lose again.

“It was surreal,” Musselman said.

The unbelievable victory at The Pit has changed Wolf Pack basketball for as long as Musselman remains the coach. The Wolf Pack are no longer the biggest little team in the Mountain West, surviving on grit, sweat and hard work. They’re now the team with the bull’s eye on their back. The Wolf Pack under Musselman, after all, are now the team of miracles, of accomplishing the impossible.

“This is not just a big deal,” Marshall said. “It is a huge deal.”

Miracles happen to Wolf Pack athletics only slightly more often than the Chicago Cubs win the World Series. There was football’s Mackay Miracle comeback from 35 points down to beat Weber State 55-49 in 1991. There was the 34-31 overtime win over Boise State at Mackay in 2010. And now this.

“I’m still a little in shock now,” Marshall said on Monday.

Given the unbelievable set of circumstances, strange happenings and the venue, the Pack Party at The Pit just might be the most miraculous event in Wolf Pack history.

Caroline scored 45 points. Just three other Pack players (Alex Boyd with 49 in 1967, Kevin Franklin with 48 in 1989 and Stan Summers with 48 in 1957) have ever scored more. Caroline made five 3-pointers, nearly doubling (seven to 12) his total for the year. Tooley had never scored a point before Saturday. Carlson had played just three minutes in his career before playing eight down the stretch against New Mexico. The Pack staged their comeback in the second half with their best player (Cam Oliver) on the bench for all but the last 16 seconds of the final nine minutes of regulation. New Mexico converted just 13-of-26 free throws in the second half in its own gym. The Pack missed its first three 3-pointers in overtime before winning the game on a three from Caroline. The Wolf Pack led in the 45-minute game for a mere 2:16.

“It was pretty crazy,” Marshall said.

“I can’t believe we pulled it off,” Caroline said.

Games like Saturday night’s miracle aren’t to be believed. So don’t analyze it too closely. Don’t use it as a blueprint for future success. Just enjoy it and go back on ESPN.com and watch it over and over again. The best thing about Saturday night isn’t what it does to the Pack’s chances of winning the Mountain West and getting back to the NCAA tournament. Saturday night has nothing to do with that.

Saturday night is about why we even care about sports. That crazy game is why we watch in the first place. It’s to witness the impossible. The victory also reminded a veteran coach like Musselman, a guy who was groomed to be a coach by his father Bill since he was old enough to tell a basketball from a grapefruit, of why he still coaches.

“We watched the tape of the game on the bus on the way back to the hotel after the game,” Musselman said. “And nobody wanted to get off the bus. It was a special moment.”

After Caroline’s overtime winner fell through the net and the Pack won the game, Musselman gave the greatest celebration by a coach at The Pit since North Carolina State’s Jim Valvano in the 1983 national championship game. There was Musselman, the guy who wrote “blowout” on his clipboard only minutes before, running around the court, yelling and screaming and hugging everyone in silver and blue. Yes, it was almost like he was flying around the gym in yellow tights and a red cape.

“When you are part of something like that, you know it’s something that won’t happen in your lifetime again,” Musselman said.

Leave it to Musselman to put a miracle firmly in perspective.

A lot of coaches would have experienced a miracle like what happened on Saturday night and think they’re living a charmed life. They would walk around believing they’re being protected by a guardian angel, that nothing could ever go wrong again. They would act like they deserved all that good fortune. Musselman is the type of coach who will dwell more on the game’s first 39 minutes than he will the final six. It’s because he knows that with enough hard work and focus the Wolf Pack to prevent those first 39 minutes from ever happening again. Those first 39 minutes he can control and fix. Those final six minutes, handed down from above by the basketball Gods? Nobody can control that. Or repeat it. That’s why they call them miracles.

“We don’t ever want to be in position like that again, to need a comeback like that again,” Caroline said.

Lesson learned.

“There are a lot of lessons to be learned,” Musselman said. “For me, as a 52-year-old coach, I learned to never stop.”

Musselman will never, ever stop. It’s why his team never, ever stops. They wouldn’t dare. Even when he slammed that clipboard down he wasn’t stopping. He was only getting started.

“I always bring energy,” he said. “It’s not always positive energy.”

But it’s always effective.

The Wolf Pack have been playing the sport of basketball up on north Virginia Street for more than 100 years. They have a had a few great coaches, some good ones and others who were, well, forgettable. But none of them ever masterminded a game like Saturday night. Jordan Caroline, understandably, is now Sweet Caroline and J.C. Superstar, up on Nevada’s campus right now. And he deserves it. But Musselman is the one who makes it all possible. Who else would give a power forward, who only shot three threes his entire freshman year at Southern Illinois, the confidence to become Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on Saturday night? Musselman is a miracle who came to Nevada from the basketball Gods in March 2015. Don’t question how or why he came here, just like you shouldn’t question how or why Saturday’s miracle took place. Just make sure he stays a while.

So, Nevada, give him what he wants. Give him a lifetime contract to coach the team. Put his name in neon on the Reno Arch. Move over Hillary Schieve. It’s time Musselman’s wife Danyelle becomes mayor of Reno. Let Musselman’s 6-year-old daughter Mariah do radio color commentary on Pack games. Put Musselman’s name on the court at Lawlor Events Center. Put a sculpture of his bust on display at Legacy Hall.

Whatever it takes to keep Musselman in Reno, just do it. Don’t wait until he gets the Pack to the NCAA tournament. That will happen in March. By then it might be too late. Before Saturday, Wolf Pack fans knew they had one of the greatest coaches in college basketball. But hardly anyone outside of the northern Nevada really knew it.

Well, now they know. Musselman, thanks to Saturday night, is the hottest, young, 52-year-old, overnight sensation in the coaching profession right now. The Power Five vultures, with their ridiculous coaching salaries and four and five-star recruits, are poised to pounce on little Mighty Muss. And who can blame them? It has taken Musselman just 55 games but he has already transformed the sport at Nevada. After getting the job at Nevada in late March 2015, it took him less than three months to sign four of the best players to ever play at Nevada (Cameron Oliver, Jordan Caroline, Marcus Marshall and Lindsey Drew). Musselman has won 19 of his last 23 games at Nevada and 38-of-55 overall. He’s won 23 of 26 games at Lawlor. He’s won a national tournament championship. He’s beaten San Diego State. He’s beaten New Mexico at The Pit.

And now he’s performing miracles.

“It’s the greatest win I’ve ever been a part of,” Musselman said.

It’s just the start.