Nevada wins CBI title |

Nevada wins CBI title

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
D.J. Fenner celebrates with Elijah Foster after Nevada beat Morehead State for the College Basketball Invitational Friday, April 1, at Lawlor Events Center.
Thomas Ranson / Lahontan Valley News |

RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team can finally call itself a national champion.

The Wolf Pack outlasted the Morehead State Eagles 85-82 in overtime Friday night to win the College Basketball Invitational in front of a lively crowd of 9,043 at Lawlor Events Center. The Pack, which earned all five of its CBI victories at home, finished 24-14 in Eric Musselman’s first year as coach.

“The thing I will always remember about this is the celebration afterward and the smiles on the guys’ faces,” Musselman said. “I’ve coached a lot of games in my career. I made the statement a month ago or so that this was my favorite team to coach. And it really is. We were hard on them this year and we pushed them hard all season long. But they are always going to remember this.”

Morehead State (23-14) took an 82-80 lead on a layup by Lyonell Gaines with 1:55 to go in the overtime. The Eagles, which led for just 3:32 the entire game, still led 82-81 after the Pack’s Tyron Criswell made just one-of-two free throws with 1:04 to go.

Criswell, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, then made up for his missed free throw on the Pack’s next possession.

“I was just going for the rim,” the Wolf Pack senior said. “I saw the ball go off (Pack guard) Lindsey (Drew) and it came right to me. I was just happy to be in the right place at the right time.”

The Pack’s D.J. Fenner penetrated into the lane on the play and passed the ball to Drew, who was cutting along the baseline on the left side of the basket. The pass, though, deflected off Drew’s hands right to Criswell, who converted the layup for an 83-82 lead with just 13 seconds to play.

“After that I was just thinking that we needed just one more stop,” said Criswell, who scored a game-high 21 points. “You never know what can happen. College basketball is crazy. So I knew we needed a stop.”

The Pack got that stop as the Eagles missed two layups that would have won the game. Miguel Dicent missed a wide open layup with four seconds to go. DeJuan Marrero pulled down the rebound in traffic and then also missed a layup with two seconds left. Fenner hauled in the rebound on Marrero’s miss, was fouled and made two free throws at the other end to nail down the CBI championship.

Pack freshman Cameron Oliver scored 20 points, pulled down 10 rebounds and blocked six shots. The 6-foot-8 center now owns the school’s single-season block record at 99, breaking Edgar Jones’ record of 96 in 1977-78.

“I saw before the game that I was three behind (Jones) but I wasn’t thinking about that,” said Oliver, who blocked 21 shots in the six CBI games. “All I wanted was this trophy right here.”

The Wolf Pack seemed ready to coast to the CBI title, taking a 51-38 lead on a jumper by Fenner with 16 minutes to go. The Pack still led comfortably, 55-46, after two free throws by Criswell with 12:37 to.

Morehead State, though, then went on a 16-5 run to tie the game at 61-61 with just under eight minutes left. Brent Arrington hit a 3-pointer to cut the Pack lead to 55-51 and Lamontray Harris drained a three as the shot clock was about to expire to even the score at 61-61. Morehead then took a 64-63 lead with 6:57 to play on a 3-pointer by Maik Maitland. It was the Eagles’ first lead since they were up 10-9 six minutes into the game.

“You could kind of feel the air being sucked out of the arena at that point,” Musselman said. “It could have been a heartbreaking loss.”

The Wolf Pack, though, took a 74-70 lead on a pair of free throws by Oliver with just 27 seconds to go in regulation. Oliver had also hit a 12-foot jumper for a 72-70 lead with 1:08 to go and gave the Pack a 70-68 lead with 1:48 left.

Morehead State of the Ohio Valley Conference, however, sent the game into overtime at 75-75 on a pair of free throws by Marrero with five seconds remaining in regulation. Marrero, who was just 5-of-10 from the line in the game, banked in the first free throw and swished the second.

“He’s an awful free throw shooter,” said Pack senior Marqueze Coleman, with a smile. “I thought we did ourselves a favor by fouling him and putting him at the line. And then he banks in the first one and I just thought, ‘You can’t be serious.’”

Musselman wasn’t worried about his team going into the extra five minutes.

“There was no panic in the huddle,” Musselman said. “The guys believed in themselves.”

The Pack took control of the overtime right away as Fenner (17 points) converted a 3-point play for a 78-75 lead with 4:44 to go. Drew also hit two free throws for an 80-77 lead with 3:16 left. Morehead, though, got a free throw by Gaines, a layup by Arrington and layup by Gaines to take an 82-80 lead with just under two minutes to play.

All that did, though, was set up Criswell’s heroics in the final seconds. His game-winning layup, Musselman said, was typical of the senior’s style of play all season long.

“That was just him doing what he does, reacting to a loose ball,” Musselman said. “He pursues balls with reckless abandon.”

Morehead’s Moon nearly sent the game into a second overtime but his 3-point shot just past mid-court bounced off the front of the rim. “On the halfcourt shot, I thought it was going in,” Musselman said. “I thought, ‘Here we go to double overtime. Nevada basketball is really going to be trending (on social media) now.’”

The Wolf Pack was in position all game long to win because of what happened at the free throw line. The Pack was 39-of-45 at the line while Morehead was a mere 6-of-13. The Eagles had 14 more field goals (35-21) but the 33-point difference at the free throw line was, in the end, too much to overcome.

“We controlled the game for most of the 40 minutes,” Musselman said.

Criswell was 13-of-15 from the line in the final game and 43-of-57 for the entire tournament.

“This is just the best way to finish it out here at Nevada for me,” Criswell said. “I’m so happy. I can’t even say.”

“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Coleman, who also played his final game in a Wolf Pack uniform. “It’s been a long journey but it’s also been a good one. I’ve been through so much adversity in my career and this teaches me that you can overcome adversity. You just have to stay strong and you can achieve great things. Winning this is going to be a lifelong memory for me.”