Nevada clinches regular season WAC title
RENO – Seth Taylor started the net-cutting ceremony, tears in his eyes, as he climbed up on the ladder.
Junior guard Kyle Shiloh held up three fingers signaling his and Nevada’s third Western Athletic Conference regular-season title in three years.
To the chants of “One more year” from the student section, superstar junior forward Nick Fazekas cut down his precious piece of net and then flexed his muscles for the appreciative crowd.
Last, and certainly not least, was head coach Mark Fox. The second-year head coach pounded the backboard three times and then cut the net completely off the rim as the Lawlor Event Center crowd roared with approval.
“It feels real good,” Shiloh said after scoring 11 points and dishing out five assists to help No. 24 Nevada (23-5, 12-3) pound San Jose State 83-60 Thursday night, which wrapped up the title outright and secured the No. 1 seed for the third straight year in the conference tournament.
“Coming out of high school, this is what you want to do – win championships,” he added. “We’re looking to continue.”
“It definitely feels good,” said Fazekas, who scored 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds despite sitting out the last eight minutes. “It’s a great accomplishment to win because the regular season is such a grind, and we did that.”
Nevada played with a target on its back the entire season, and the fact that the Pack were picked to win the title by the media and the coaches didn’t make it any easier.
“The most difficult thing in athletics is to win the championship when everybody says you’re supposed to,” Fox said. “Fortunately for us, we’ve got some quality young men that were able to take care of business on a daily basis. They have been very determined to go out and add another trophy to our trophy case.”
Nevada would love to add the WAC post-season championship to its list of achievements. Last season’s opening-round loss still weighs heavily on the Pack.
“We can’t look too far ahead,” said Fazekas. “We’re not in one of those conferences where we’re a lock to go.”
“We have to stay hungry,” Shiloh said.
Nevada was hungry enough to devour the Spartans, who fell to 6-23 overall and 2-13 in the WAC. The Pack earned a lot of praise from SJSU coach George Nessman.
“This is an example of what we want to do,” Nessman said. “Nevada had to work hard to get here, and they deserve all the accolades they get.
“They are good enough to play with anybody in the country. Winning in the first isn’t enough for them anymore. They look like a team that could go to the second round and do some damage.”
Nevada shot well early in the game, but the Spartans stubbornly stayed within striking distance, closing to 28-21 with 7:53 left in the first half.
“We had breakdowns in our zone defense,” Nessman said, alluding to a couple of easy Nevada layups early in the contest. “We’re not a team that can play from behind.”
The seven-point deficit went up to 18, as the Spartans (27.8 from the field) continued their cold shooting and the Pack went on a 15-4 half-ending surge.
Marcelus Kemp (14 points) scored on a drive into the lane, Ramon Sessions scored from the right side and Fazekas converted an SJSU miscue into a bucket to make it 34-21 with 5:15 left. After a free throw by Demetrius Brown (16 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks), Demarshay Johnson (12 points, 5 blocks) scored two straight buckets, including a rim-rattling dunk, to extend the lead to 38-22.
Jared Cozad’s 3-pointer made it 38-25, but a 3-pointer by Mo Charlo (6 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists) and a steal and layup by Sessions made it 43-25 after the first 20 minutes.
“The game was getting sluggish,” Fox said. “We talked about getting back into rhythm and finishing the half strong, and to come out and play well in the first five minutes of the second half.”
“We’re not a good shooting team,” Nessman said. “They are so long, they altered a dozen shots (total).”
Nevada built off its first-half momentum, outscoring San Jose State 12-2 for a 55-27 lead. Shiloh hit his only 3-pointer of the game, Fazekas scored, Kemp knocked down two free throws and Fazekas scored on a transition slam dunk, outrunning the SJSU defenders downcourt and getting a great pass from Sessions.
Matt Misko (season-high 15 points) stopped the run with a putback at the 18:11 mark, but Fazekas drained a 3-pointer, building the lead to 28.
Nevada’s offense went AWOL over the next five minutes, as the Spartans, led by Misko’s two buckets and a 3-pointer by Cozad, went on a 9-0 run to slice the lead to 55-36.
An 8-2 Nevada run got the lead back up to 25, 63-38, with 10:52 left. Only once did the lead slip under 20 the rest of the way, and that’s when Brown and Carlton Spencer scored on back-to-back possessions to make it 75-56. Charlo and Denis Ikovlev hit 3-pointers stretching the lead to 25 again.
“We played all right,” Fazekas said. “It’s not the best we can play. There are steps to take forward.”
“We didn’t play great,” he said. “We made enough baskets to win. I thought we defended OK. Teams should get better the entire season. The chemistry is good and getting stronger.”
That’s bad news for the rest of the WAC.