Joe Santoro: ‘Streaking’ Nevada wins 2nd straight
The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is on an honest to goodness winning streak.
That’s right. Shoot the confetti onto the floor at Lawlor Events Center. Organize a parade down Virginia Street. Heck, go ahead and start working on a new banner to hang in the rafters.
Team Inconsistency has won two games in a row.
“It’s time to get back on a nice little win streak,” said Wolf Pack senior D.J. Fenner after the Pack’s 77-66 win over Utah State on Saturday at Lawlor Events Center.
Hey, it’s not the size of the winning streak that matters. All that matters for the Wolf Pack right now is they’ve started one. It’s been a while. This is the Pack’s first winning streak in the month of February, it’s first since it beat Boise State and New Mexico in late January.
“We just want to be consistent everyday,” Pack coach Eric Musselman said.
It’s been a while since that happened also. Heading into Saturday’s game, the Wolf Pack has been on a perplexing win-one-lose-one hopscotch for the last five games. That’s not the pattern you want attached to your resume heading into the one-loss-and-you-go-home Mountain West tournament March 8-11 in Las Vegas.
“Consistency is very huge moving forward,” said senior Marcus Marshall, whose 3-point shot has been anything but consistent in recent weeks.
The Pack’s mini win streak, which began Wednesday with a 78-59 win at Air Force, isn’t going to propel them into the NCAA tournament. It was against two teams they should have beaten easily. But that was the best thing about these two victories. It wasn’t that they beat two mediocre-to-bad basketball teams. The important thing is the Pack played well in back-to-back games when everybody expected them to play well. That also hasn’t happened since late January.
“We just want to finish the season now with a great effort every night,” Musselman said, not wanting to be specific about anything after the victory on Saturday.
Effort goes a long way in this year’s Mountain West Conference. And when you combine effort with the conference’s best talent, well, there’s a reason the Pack is tied atop the conference with Boise State and Colorado State at 10-4 in league play. The Pack, now 21-6 overall, certainly had effort against Utah State, outrebounding the Aggies 45-29. Utah State, which is now 11-15 overall and has lost all seven of its conference road games this year, won the battle of the boards 50-36 on its own floor Feb. 1 in a 74-57 win over the Pack. That’s a difference of 30 rebounds, from down 14 to up 16, in just 17 days.
That’s what effort can do for a team as talented as the Pack. It can make them champions.
“It felt good to have that many rebounds,” said sophomore Cam Oliver, one of three Pack players along with Jordan Caroline and Lindsey Drew to finish with 10 boards on Saturday. “We didn’t like the way we left Utah State (on Feb. 1).”
Losing, though, isn’t the Pack’s problems. It’s the winning that gives them problems.
The Wolf Pack demoralized UNLV by 27 points seven days after losing at Utah State. That, too, was expected. The Wolf Pack, which hasn’t lost two games in a row this entire season, always plays well after losses. It’s the victories that always seem to bring out the frustrating inconsistencies in this team. After whipping UNLV, the Pack fell into its inconsistent ways once again and lost by 14 at San Diego State just four days later.
That was Team Inconsistency at its best. The Pack had a chance to put a stake in the heart of the struggling but always dangerous Aztecs but they instead breathed life into the Aztecs’ season.
“San Diego State probably played the best game that it’s played all season,” said Musselman, who doesn’t especially like to analyze his losses, especially after he’s just won a game. “But we also didn’t play well.”
Of course not. It was after a victory.
The Pack, as most everyone expected, rebounded after the loss at San Diego State to rout Air Force three days later.
“Our guys always seem to do a great job of refocusing after a loss,” Musselman said.
Which brings us to Saturday night. With a dangerous victory hanging over their heads from their previous game, would the Pack play well for a second consecutive game?
They answered that question almost immediately, jumping out to a 13-5 lead five minutes into the game. Utah State would force a 26-26 tie with 4:44 to go in the first half but that only seemed to anger the Pack. The Pack led by 11 at halftime and never let the Aggies closer than seven in the second half.
“If we rebound and defend we’re as good as anybody that’s been on our schedule,” Musselman said.
With the Wolf Pack, it all comes down to consistency of effort, which leads to consistency on defense and on the boards. That’s the type of effort the Pack needs in its final four regular season games and in the Mountain West tournament.
“You know, you are still dealing with college-age athletes,” said Musselman, who cut his coaching teeth in professional basketball.
That was his way of saying consistency is a night-to-night test in college basketball.
“Our guys do a great job of bouncing back,” Musselman said. “We like to say we have a pro mentality and bring great effort every game.”
Fenner, who has been the Pack’s most consistent player over the past month and has developed into the team‘s unquestioned leader, says to look past the final scores. Yes, a win-one-lose-one stretch over three weeks might look like inconsistency. But it goes deeper than that, he said. Fenner insists the Pack has been consistent overall with its progress, despite losing a game now and then.
“We’re just getting better and better,” Fenner said. “Even when we have a bad game, we come back from that and are even better. The last few games we’ve rebounded at a higher rate, we’ve shared the ball and we’ve played good defense. These last four games we just have to keep building.”
Now do it again.
That’s the theme of the remainder of this Wolf Pack basketball season.
Do it again. And again and again and again.