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Nevada can win its fifth straight WAC crown

DARRELL MOODY
Appeal Sports Writer

FRESNO, Calif. – There is plenty at stake when Nevada faces off Saturday against Fresno State in the regular-season finale for both schools.

Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. at the Save Mart Center.

Thanks to Utah State’s big win over Boise State on Thursday night in Boise, the Pack (19-10, 11-4) has an opportunity to grab a share of its fifth straight Western Athletic Conference title with a victory over the Bulldogs (13-17, 5-10).

It could be a four-way tie for first if Nevada, New Mexico State and Utah State all win. Four teams would be tied for first. If that happens, Utah State would be the top seed because of its sweep of Boise State.

Nevada posted a tidy 79-67 win over the Bulldogs at Lawor Events Center back on January 31 thanks to a 28-point effort by senior swingman Marcelus Kemp.

It’s certainly not a game Nevada coach Mark Fox is taking lightly, nor should any of his players.

Eleven of Fresno State’s 13 wins have come at home, and the Bulldogs barely lost to Boise State (90-89), Utah State (77-72) and New Mexico State (69-64) on their home court.

“Fresno State is a good basketball team,” Fox said Monday on the weekly WAC teleconference. “Kevin Bell and Eddie Miller are a terrific backcourt, and they have Dwight O’Neil back. I think their front line is underappreciated. All the pieces are together.

“It’s their Senior Night. They have great seniors. It’s not an easy place to go play. Our kids have to be ready to try and slow them down, and they are a very good defensive team, we have to figure out a way to put the ball in the basket.”

Fresno State does present defensive problems because it is a perimeter-oriented team. Nevada has to be able to guard the 3-point area and not let Bell penetrate and kick out for easy looks.

Bell, who averages 18.7 points per game, is coming off a career-best 31-point game against Utah State. He can score in several different ways, while Miller, who averages 15.3 a game, is more of a long-distance scorer. Hector Hernandez, the ‘Dogs 6-8 center-forward, is also a dangerous 3-point threat. He averages 9.5 an outing. O’Neil is averaging 9.6 a game.

“He (Bell) has had a good year,” Fresno State coach Steve Cleveland said. “He shot the ball better (13 of 18) than I’ve ever seen against Utah State. He hit a lot of mid-range jump shots and a couple of 3-pointers. It was a combination of everything.

“Dwight is back, but he’s not even close as to what we know he can do.”

Nevada must do a better job against 6-10 250-pound freshman center Brandon Webster, who scored 11 points and pulled down 10 rebounds.

“He’s going to be a good player in a year or so,” Cleveland said. “This spring and summer will be very important for him. He’s a big guy with great hands and a nice touch inside.”

While it’s evident that Fresno State can score the ball, the jury is still out whether Fresno State can get enough stops to pull off a big upset.

“Nevada is probably the toughest match-up for us,” Cleveland said. ” We played New Mexico State the other night and they’re a good team, but we didn’t have the problems that we have when we face Nevada.

“Kemp is a tough guard for us. Their guard play is good, if not the best (in the conference). I love Armon Johnson and (Brandon) Fields is really coming into his own.”

Kemp recently had his streak of 28 games with 10 or more points broken against Louisiana Tech when he scored just nine points. In his previous four games he’d scored 22, 32, 12 and 27.

Fields had 17 and McGee 15 in the first meeting of the teams. McGee is coming off a career-best 26-point effort against Louisiana Tech.

Notes: Interestingly enough, this could be a possible preview of a first-round tournament game depending on how everything shakes out tonight … Fresno State is honoring its 1998 NCAA softball championship team at halftime of tonight’s game … Since the 2004-05 season, Nevada has won 71 percent of its road games … Nevada leads the all-time series 41-34, and has won the last four times against the Bulldogs.

NEVADA’S TOURNAMENT SEEDING SCENARIOS

1st – If Nevada beats Fresno State, New Mexico State beats Hawai’i and Idaho beats Utah State

2nd – If Hawai’i beats New Mexico State and Idaho beats Utah State OR If Nevada beats Fresno State, New Mexico State beats Hawai’i and Utah State beats Idaho

3rd – If Hawai’i beats New Mexico State and Utah State beats Idaho OR If Nevada loses to Fresno State, New Mexico State beats Hawai’i and Idaho beats Utah State

4th – If Nevada loses to Fresno State, New Mexico State beats Hawai’i and Utah State beats Idaho