No. 17 Nevada Wolf Pack claim share of 3rd straight Mountain West championship
By Joe Santoro For the Nevada Appeal
The Nevada Wolf Pack won a share of the Mountain West regular season championship, completed a perfect home season and honored seven seniors Saturday night at Lawlor Events Center.
The No. 17 Wolf Pack whipped the San Diego State Aztecs 81-53 in front of an emotional and appreciative crowd of 11,243 on Senior Night in the final home game of the season. “It’s kind of like a storybook ending,” said senior Jordan Caroline, who helped cut down the nets with his teammates after the game in celebration of the Pack’s third consecutive Mountain West regular season title.
The Wolf Pack, now 28-3 overall, finishes atop the Mountain West in the regular season tied with Utah State at 15-3. The Pack, the No. 1 seed in next week’s Mountain West tournament, has now won three consecutive conference regular season titles for the first time since it won five Western Athletic Conference titles in a row from 2004-08.
“Before the year started if someone would have told me we’d be 28-3 and the No. 1 seed in the Mountain West tournament, I would have said, ‘Sign me up. Where can I sign?’” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said.
The Wolf Pack finished seventh, third and 10th in the school’s first three seasons in the Mountain West (2013-15) before Musselman took over the program. With Musselman, the Pack has three conference titles in four years.
“I just told the guys in the locker room, ‘To do this thing three years in a row, that’s hard to do in any conference,’” Musselman said. “I’ve always said that winning the regular season is much more difficult thing to do that to get hot for three games (in the conference tournament).”
The victory on Saturday snapped a three-game losing streak for the Wolf Pack against the Aztecs and avenged one of its three losses this season, 65-57 on Feb. 20 in San Diego. The win also put the finishing touches on just the second perfect home season (along with 2003-04) for the Wolf Pack (15-0) since it moved into Lawlor Events Center in 1983-84. The Pack will carry an 18-game (15 this year) home winning streak into next season.
“The thing I will remember most about playing here is the fans and how much they got into it,” said Caroline, who had 16 points and 12 rebounds in his final game at Lawlor.
The Pack honored its seven active seniors before the game and they responded by scoring 76 of the Pack’s 81 points. Four of them scored in double figures as Caleb Martin scored a game-high 25 points followed by Caroline and Trey Porter (both with 16) and Cody Martin (14). The other three seniors combined for eight, all by Tre’Shawn Thurman. Corey Henson didn’t score in 12 minutes and David Cunningham didn’t score in two minutes.
Musselman took Caroline and the Martin twins out of the game together with two minutes to play as the ninth crowd this season in excess of 11,000 fans gave them a standing ovation.
“I just told them I loved them and thanked them for taking me and my family on this ride,” Musselman said.
The Martins and Caroline were teammates for just the past two seasons but they have already won 57-of-68 games together with two Mountain West regular season titles. Caroline also debuted his new hairstyle on Saturday night that looked an awful like the one normally worn by the Martin twins.
“I’m a triplet now,” Caroline said with a smile.
The victory is just the sixth for the Pack against San Diego State in 22 games. The 28-point victory, though, is the Pack’s largest ever against the Aztecs, eclipsing a 25-point win (83-58) last year at Lawlor.
“I was worried how we would play with all of the emotions on Senior Night,” Musselman said. “You always wonder on Senior Night with all of the distractions where their minds would be.”
The Pack looked focused right from the start, building a commanding 16-5 lead less than five minutes into the game. Cody Martin, who scored all of his 14 points in the first half, started the evening with a jumper just six seconds into the game for a 2-0 Pack lead.
The Pack, which led 42-37 at halftime, never relinquished that lead the entire game. The Aztecs, though, did make things interesting before the break.
San Diego State, now 19-12, 11-7, sliced the Wolf Pack lead to just 40-37 with a minute to go in the half thanks to a 10-0 run in a span of just over two minutes. Devin Watson, who was 4-for-4 on threes in the opening half, drained a pair from long distance during the run to go along with a pair of layups by Jeremy Hemsley.
Hemsley had a team-high 13 points at halftime (just three in the second half) on three threes. The Aztecs were just 2-of-7 from the free throw line in the first half but kept things close because of 9-of-12 shooting on threes.
The Wolf Pack had dominated the first 16 minutes of the game, building a 40-27 lead. Cody and Caleb Martin supplied most of the offense with a combined 26 points and four 3-pointers. Cody hit a pair of threes for leads of 32-17 and 40-27. Caleb Martin, who had a game-high seven assists, also had a pair of threes in the first 20 minutes.
“We wanted to take it to them from the start,” Caroline said.
Porter, who took just one shot and scored five points in the first half, carried the Wolf Pack offense to start the second half. The 6-11 senior scored the Wolf Pack’s first seven points (on two dunks and three free throws) in the second half as Nevada took a 49-42 lead with 16 minutes to play.
The Wolf Pack then thoroughly dominated the final 16 minutes.
A 11-2 Wolf Pack run gave the Pack a 60-46 lead with 10:28 to play. Caleb Martin connected on a jumper and drained four free throws to key the run. Caroline also had a layup off a feed from Thurman and Jazz Johnson connected on a 3-pointer (after missing his first five threes) to cap the run.
But the Pack was only getting started.
A 17-0 run in just under five minutes, giving the Wolf Pack a 79-49 lead with 3:35 to play, turned the game into a rout. Caleb Martin, Caroline and Thurman each had 3-pointers in the run and Caroline had a steal followed by a dunk as the Pack trounced the Aztecs. San Diego State missed all seven of its shots during the Pack run. The Pack was 5-of-7 from the floor overall and 3-of-4 on threes during the run of 4:54.
The Wolf Pack defense simply suffocated the Aztecs in the second half. San Diego State was just 5-of-25 from the floor overall and 1-of-9 on threes after halftime. The Aztecs’ 16 points in the second half is the fewest allowed by the Wolf Pack in a half this season.
The secret was the Pack’s 42-25 edge on the boards. The Aztecs also had just one offensive rebound the entire game and didn’t score a single second-chance point (the Pack had 12).
“That second half is as good as we’ve played all year (on defense), holding them to 5-of-25,” Musselman said.
The Wolf Pack is now just one victory away from equaling the school record of 29 in a season, set last year and in 2006-07. The 28 victories this year equals the most the Wolf Pack has ever had in the regular season with the 1945-46 team that team played just one game in the postseason, losing in the NAIA tournament.
The Pack will play its first game in the Mountain West tournament on Thursday against the winner of the Boise State (No. 8 seed) – Colorado State game (No. 9) on Wednesday. The Wolf Pack won the Mountain West tournament in 2016-17 but went 1-1 last year in Las Vegas, losing to San Diego State 90-73.
“We’d like to go to the tournament and have different results than we had last year,” Musselman said.