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Nevada wins share of crown

Nevada Appeal Staff Reports

By DARRELL MOODY

Appeal Staff Writer

RENO – The night started with a standing ovation for University of Nevada seniors Garry Hill-Thomas, Sean Paul and Todd Okeson.

It ended in much the same way, as the crowd of 9,450 at Lawlor Events Center stood and roared its approval as the Wolf Pack players cut down the nets after hammering San Jose State 74-45 Saturday night for a share of the Western Athletic Conference championship.

Nevada (20-8, 13-5) ended in a first-place tie with UTEP (22-6, 13-5). However, because Boise State swept UTEP, the Wolf Pack are the No. 1 seed entering the WAC tournament which starts Tuesday at Fresno State’s Save Mart Center.

The Wolf Pack, who will face the SMU-Tulsa winner Thursday at noon, won the Big Sky championship in the 1983-84 and 1984-85 seasons, and won the Big West’s Eastern Division in 1996-97. It was the sixth time in school history that the Wolf Pack won 20 games.

It was a nice way for the three seniors to end their careers, especially Hill-Thomas and Paul who finished their fourth seasons at Nevada, and were part of coach Trent Johnson’s recruiting class.

“It’s a great feeling,” Hill-Thomas said. “I never imagined on Senior Night that I would be cutting down the nets.

“We’ve come a long way since I first got here. My goal coming in was to do this; win the WAC. Winning the WAC is definitely what I came here to do, and I’m glad I was able to accomplish that.”

Hill-Thomas, who scored 18 points and pulled down five rebounds, savored the moment when it was his turn to cut down a piece of the net, sitting for a long time on the top of the ladder. He was surrounded by a circle of fans, mostly students.

“I was trying to sit there and take it all in,” said Hill-Thomas. “Coach (Josh) Newman kept saying it’s time. I’ve seen it on TV, but you never think you’ll be doing it. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Winning a regular-season title was something that Paul didn’t expect to happen when he came to Reno four years ago.

“No way would I have thought that,” said Paul, who finished with five points and four rebounds. “I dreamed of that. I’m living it right now.”

Okeson said he’s never been on a championship team before, and he’s thankful that Johnson gave him an opportunity to play at Nevada.

“It’s real nice,” he said. “We were excited coming into the game. They (San Jose State) knew the circumstances, and we put defense on them early. This is awesome. It might be better than beating Kansas. I don’t know what to say about this.”

Yes indeed, the program has come a long way. It has gone from nine wins in Johnson’s first year to 20 this year. The talent pool considering Nevada has gotten bigger and bigger.

Johnson who pumped his fist triumphantly as he cut down the final piece of the net, was choked up with emotion at the post-game news conference.

“Wow,” he said after a long pause. “This is tremendous for our seniors. It was a hard week for me. I’m trying to contain my excitement. This is not about me by any means.”

Johnson talked for a few more seconds, and said “I can’t do this,” and left the room.

Nevada took control of the game early, bringing the crowd to its feet with three alley-oop slams in the first six minutes en route to a 17-6 lead. Hill-Thomas, who had 12 first-half points, was the recipient of two of the passes, and Kevinn Pinkney slammed down one dunk on a pass from Kirk Snyder, who finished with 19 points.

The Spartans got the lead down to eight, 32-24, with 2:53 left in the half, but the Wolf Pack hit seven free throws to end the half, boosting its lead to 39-24. Nevada sliced up the Spartans’ defense with 20 points in the paint, and scored 12 points off SJSU turnovers in the first 20 minutes.

Nevada upped its lead to 50-28 in the first five minutes of the second half with an 11-4 run sparked by Snyder, who scored seven straight points at one time, thrilling the hometown crowd.

After four straight free throws by the Spartans, Fazekas and Hill-Thomas lead a 10-0 run to make it 60-32 with 10:46 left. Except for a curtain call for the three seniors, the reserves played the rest of the game.

“This is the barometer of the Western Athletic Conference,” San Jose State coach Phil Johnson said. “They are league champions for a reason. They have size, strength, quickness and depth. They have a first-round draft pick and a vastly superior team.”

Notes: Nevada was the only WAC team to go 9-0 at home. Rice and UTEP were 8-1, and Hawaii was 7-2 …. Nevada is 20-0 when leading at the half, and 0-8 when trailing at the half … The Wolf Pack are 16-1 this year when holding an opponent to less than 69 points … Nevada’s home win streak is tied for 10th-best in the nation. Stephen F. Austin has the longest current streak at 29.