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Nevada hoops breaks seven-game losing streak against Gators

JOE SANTORO
For the Nevada Appeal

RENO – The Nevada Wolf Pack finally had a reason to smile Saturday night.

“It’s good to be in the win column again,” Wolf Pack coach David Carter said after a 78-64 victory over the San Francisco State Gators at Lawlor Events Center. “Hopefully we’ll stay there.”

The much-needed victory broke a frustrating seven-game losing streak for the Pack, its longest slide since an eight-game drought in the 2000-01 season. The Pack, now 2-7, last tasted victory a month ago (Nov. 13) over Montana (81-66) in the season opener.

“This win is definitely a confidence booster,” freshman point guard Deonte Burton said.

“It’s been a long time,” sophomore Malik Story said.

The Wolf Pack, though, opened the game by displaying a lot of the same problems that caused the seven-game losing streak. The Pack committed 11 turnovers in the 20 minutes and went into halftime with a slim 35-34 lead against the Division II Gators.

“We talked in the locker room about picking up our energy,” said junior Dario Hunt, who scored 15 of his game-high 25-points in the second half.

The Pack blew the game open with a 14-0 run over a four-minute stretch in the second half to take a 55-40 lead with 12:50 remaining.

A Burton 3-pointer started the game-changing run. Jerry Evans also came off the bench to hit a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws in the uprising. The Pack was just 3-of-8 from the field during those pivotal four minutes but they also didn’t turn the ball over once.

“A lot of those turnovers in the first half were unforced because our energy level was down, our focus was down,” said Burton, who finished with 12 points, three assists and three turnovers. “But in the second half our energy was up and when you pick up your energy level you take care of the ball better.”

The Wolf Pack turned the ball over six times in the second half to finish with 17 turnovers for the game. They were averaging 16 turnovers a game over their first eight games.

“I always talk with our young guys about a sense of urgency,” Carter said. “We have to come out and start with more energy than we showed tonight. You have to bring energy from the start and feed off the crowd (3,763).”

San Francisco State, now 5-2, brought a five-game winning streak to Lawlor on Saturday. The Gators, who also turned the ball over 11 times in the first half and 17 for the game, took a brief lead in the first half, 31-30 with 1:52 to play.

The Pack needed four points by Story in a 15-second span late in the first half to take its narrow halftime lead. Carter all but admitted that the Pack, playing its first game against the Gators in 39 years, was fortunate to be playing a Division II opponent.

“Against good teams you are not going to win many games when you only play one half,” Carter said.

But it was a very good half. The Pack dominated the second 20 minutes and led by at least 10 points over the final seven-plus minutes.

Hunt had four lay-ups over a three-minute stretch as the Pack took a 76-60 lead with 3:23 to play. The 6-foot-8 junior had only scored 20 or more points in a game once before (21 against BYU early last season) in his three-year Pack career.

“His role has changed this year,” Carter said. “Last year he was the fourth or fifth wheel. This year he is one or two. He’s really stepped up.”

Hunt, who has now led the Pack in scoring in five games this season, also had a season-high five blocks to go along with a dozen rebounds.

“My teammates did a great job of finding me,” said Hunt, who took 20 of the Pack’s 57 shots against San Francisco State. “I just tried to be more aggressive.”

He had just six blocks over the Pack’s first eight games.

“Their guards were attacking the basket a lot so I just wanted to help out,” Hunt said.

The Wolf Pack played fairly solid defense the whole game, outrebounding the Gators (43-36) and holding them to just 37% shooting from the field.

“I think we can be a good defensive team and a good rebounding team,” Carter said. “It’s all about cutting down the turnovers. When we do that the offense will come around, too.”

The Pack played 13 players against the Gators, nine of them between 12 and 29 minutes.

“We just wanted to come out and get this win,” said Story, who finished with nine points and five rebounds. “We don’t want to take any more losses.”

The Pack will next be in action Friday night at Lawlor against Arizona State. Reno High graduate Olek Czyz, who transferred to Nevada from Duke a year ago, is expected to make his Wolf Pack debut against the Sun Devils.

“We’re still just playing 20 or 30 good minutes a game,” Carter said. “We have to start playing 40 minutes of good basketball. We’ve been stressing that all year.”