Joe Santoro: Sister Jean too much for Nevada Wolf Pack | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Sister Jean too much for Nevada Wolf Pack

Joe Santoro
Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt sits with other Loyola-Chicago fans during the first half of a regional semifinal NCAA college basketball game against Nevada, Thursday, March 22, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
AP | AP

Sometimes you simply run out of miracles. Unless, of course, you are the Loyola Ramblers. Loyola’s Sister Jean seems to have a mysterious otherworldly power over this NCAA tournament. That’s the only way to explain the Nevada Wolf Pack’s heartbreaking 69-68 loss to Loyola on Thursday in Atlanta. How else can you explain Kendall Stephens missing all eight of his 3-point attempts? How else can you explain the Wolf Pack missing 20-of-27 3-pointers as a team? How else can you explain the Wolf Pack turning a 20-8 lead with 13:36 to play in the first half into a 40-28 deficit with 16:45 to go in the second half? And, still, the Pack lost by just one point. This just might be the most disappointing and painful loss in the history of Wolf Pack sports.

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Stephens, who had a brilliant one-season Wolf Pack career after three seasons at Purdue, just picked the absolute worst time to have his worst game as a member of the Pack. He didn’t score against Loyola and his 0-for-8 showing on threes is the worst performance of his four-year career. The most threes he ever missed in a game without making one before Thursday was six against both Florida and Vanderbilt early in the 2015-16 season when he was with Purdue. The Pack simply could not overcome Stephens not contributing on the offensive end. That was always the danger with this Wolf Pack team since point guard Lindsey Drew went down with a season-ending Achilles’ injury. If one of the main scorers (Caleb and Cody Martin, Stephens and Jordan Caroline) had a bad night, there was a good chance the Pack would lose.

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Stephens isn’t the first Pack player to have a dreadful shooting night in the final game of the season. In recent years, the list has actually grown quite long. Dannie Jones was 1-for-10 in the NCAA tournament loss to Washington in 1984. Jimmy Carroll was 2-for-11 in the 1997 NIT loss to Nebraska. Luke Babbitt was 2-for-14 in the loss to Rhode Island in the 2010 NIT. And Marcus Marshall was 2-for-10 in last year’s NCAA loss to Iowa State. It happens. Give Loyola credit. The Ramblers refused to let Stephens beat them.

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The Wolf Pack followed the same formula against Loyola that it used to beat Texas and Cincinnati. It’s just that this time Loyola refused to play along. The Pack fell behind Texas 40-26 with 18:42 to play and trailed Cincinnati 65-43 with 11:37 to go. And won both games. The Pack then trailed Loyola 40-28 with 16:45 to go. The difference was that Texas and Cincinnati played dead after building their big leads. Loyola, which never allowed the Pack to take the lead in the second half (it was tied 59-59 with four minutes to go) came back from the dead in time to win the game. The Pack simply did not play well in this tournament other than in spurts. It’s a testament to their never-ending will to win that they lasted into the Sweet 16.

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All things considered, Eric Musselman turned in arguably the best coaching job of anyone in the nation this year unless, of course, Loyola’s Porter Moser goes on to win this tournament. Musselman, who will likely remember the loss to Loyola for the rest of his life, brought a Wolf Pack team that didn’t have a true center, didn’t have a true point guard, couldn’t rebound or play defense in the paint and had just one reliable bench player to within a basket of going to the Elite Eight.

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Was this the greatest season in Wolf Pack basketball history? Well, with two more points on Thursday it would have been. But the best you can say about this season is that it ties the 2003-04 season as the greatest in school history. The 2003-04 team also went to the Sweet 16 and won the WAC regular season and tournament titles. This year’s team had more dramatic NCAA victories — the win over Cincinnati is, without question, the greatest in school history — but there’s something to be said for whipping an opponent in the NCAA tournament. The 2003-04 team beat Michigan State by six and Gonzaga by 19 before losing to a tough Georgia Tech team by just five.

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Anything can happen, but it’s not likely Musselman is going to leave the Wolf Pack anytime soon. So relax, Wolf Pack fans. The Muss Bus is doing pretty well in Nevada, on and off the court. It would take a very unique offer for him to leave the Pack before the start of the 2018-19 season. The biggest reason he’ll likely stay for now is that the team has already shown it can win in the NCAA tournament. Musselman can win a national title in the near future as easily (or easier) at Nevada as he can anywhere else there might be an opening in the coming months. Can money lure him away? Maybe someday. But he already gets a base salary of $1 million from the Pack, a deal that runs through the 2021-22 season. This year, for example, he has already earned a $10,000 bonus for winning the Mountain West regular season title, another $10,000 for getting to the NCAA tournament, and another $20,000 for his two NCAA victories. He’s not worried about clipping coupons before he goes shopping. And don’t be shocked if the Pack sweetens his deal once again in the coming weeks.

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If Musselman does leave soon, it might be to the NBA. All you have to do is talk to Musselman for five minutes to understand that the taste of the NBA is still in his mouth. He is always referencing NBA players, coaches and teams. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure out he might like another shot at the NBA someday. He’s already been a NBA head coach for three years, starting in his late 30s. He’s a much better coach now. He’s amazing with the media. Players of all ages adore him. He knows how to sell tickets. And he will outwork every other coach in the league. Some team in the NBA would be smart to throw big money at him right now.

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Wolf Pack basketball fans might be in for a treat in the coming years. How about Musselman vs. Mark Fox showdown every season in the Mountain West? Fox, the former Wolf Pack head coach (his five-year era ended in 2008-09), was fired by the Georgia Bulldogs earlier this month after nine seasons. But his name has already surfaced in media reports as being one of the finalists for the Utah State Aggies job. Fox, still just 49 years old, did a solid job at Georgia with a 163-133 record and two NCAA tournament appearances. He’d no doubt make Utah State very competitive in the Mountain West. There also would not be an empty seat at Lawlor Events Center when Fox came to town to battle with Musselman.