Senior Night: Parting is such sweet sorrow | NevadaAppeal.com

Senior Night: Parting is such sweet sorrow

Joe Santoro
Special for the Nevada Appeal

Jordan Caroline, back, picks up a loose ball and trails Caleb Martin down the court against Air Force on Tuesday.

The greatest senior class in the history of Nevada Wolf Pack men's basketball is going to play its final game at Lawlor Events Center on Saturday night.

Shed a tear, Wolf Pack fans. Cry your eyes out. Wipe your eyes and shed some more tears. It's OK. This senior class deserves it. You're allowed to be emotional. An unforgettable era in Northern Nevada sports history, let alone Wolf Pack basketball history, is about to come to an end.

"I just want to savor everything about this season," said Cody Martin, one of the seven seniors who will be honored Saturday night (7:30 p.m.) when the Wolf Pack takes on San Diego State in the final regular season game. "You don't want it to end because we all love playing with each other."

The Wolf Pack, if all goes as planned, will play nine meaningful, career and program-changing games after Saturday night in the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas next week and in the NCAA tournament the following three weeks. But for the vast majority of Wolf Pack fans the team and these seniors will be seen only on television sets, tablets, computers and phones after Saturday night. This Saturday night will be the last time Northern Nevada, which has filled Lawlor Events Center to the rafters this season for every dribble, basket, dunk and 3-pointer, will have to personally say good-bye.

It won't be easy. Parting with this Wolf Pack team and especially these seniors will indeed be such sweet sorrow.

"Northern Nevada has completely fallen in love with this basketball team," said Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman, the matchmaker of this community-wide love affair.

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Imagining the Wolf Pack without this senior class, in particular twins Caleb and Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline, will be nearly impossible. And a little frightening. Imagine Reno without neon or buffets. Mount Rose without snow in February. Cashell Fieldhouse without the Fremont Cannon.

"This is it for a lot of us," Cody Martin said. "This is the year we've been working for. After this, from what I've been told (in professional basketball), it will be just business. We're going to remember this season for the rest of our lives."

These seniors, even the ones who have spent just one season in front of Northern Nevada (Tre'Shawn Thurman, Trey Porter and Corey Henson) have become the symbol of Wolf Pack basketball. Even David Cunningham, who seldom plays after the pre-game player introductions, has been in Nevada the longest (four seasons) of any active player and is also a fan favorite.

"Our Big Three is special," said Musselman of the Martin twins and Caroline. "They had offers to go other places (after last season in professional basketball) and they made a choice to come back here and play in front of these fans again. That's how important it is to them."

Lawlor Events Center, which opened for the start of the 1983-84 season, may never see a silver and blue senior class like this ever again. It's rare in college basketball in these days of one-and-done stars to fill a roster with seniors, even in Nevada with talented underclassmen like Javale McGee, Ramon Sessions, Luke Babbitt, Armon Johnson and Kirk Snyder all leaving early for the NBA in the last 15 years. And, like Musselman pointed out, even the Martin twins and Caroline flirted with the NBA last spring.

But they all came back. Seniors like Thurman, Porter and Henson all left the comfort of their former teams to come to Northern Nevada for just one season, to be a part of a season a college player can only dream about. And this group of seniors simply turned the cement, steel and glass flying saucer on north Virginia Street into one of the best home court advantages in college basketball.

Caroline, who first stepped on the floor for the Wolf Pack in the 2016-17 season, has gone 41-2 at Lawlor. The Martins, who debuted for the Pack in 2017-18, have gone 28-1 at home. Porter, Henson and Thurman, who joined the team this season, have never lost at Lawlor, going 14-0. Cunningham, who has been in Reno as long as Musselman (since 2015-16) has, for the most part, watched his teammates go 57-5 at home.

This senior class, if all goes well on Saturday night and next week in Las Vegas, will leave Northern Nevada with three consecutive Mountain West regular season championships, two conference tourney titles and three NCAA tournament appearances in a row which include one Sweet 16 appearance and one, well, this isn't the time to get ahead of ourselves. This senior class could end its career with 13 NCAA tournament appearances combined by the end of this season. No other Wolf Pack senior class comes close.

This senior class is simply the best in Lawlor Events Center history. Better than all the rest. And it's not like they haven't had any competition for the unofficial title.

The 2016 class had Marqueze Coleman and Tyron Criswell, two underrated leaders who helped the program transition into the Musselman era with a College Basketball Invitation title and 24 wins. Deonte Burton and Jerry Evans played their last game at Lawlor in 2014. Only Nick Fazekas (2,464 points) scored more points in Wolf Pack history than Burton (2,102) while Evans had 985 points, 623 rebounds and 109 3-pointers in his career. Olek Czyz and Dario Hunt departed after 2011-12. Hunt is one of just four Pack players in history (with Fazekas, Pete Padgett, Edgar Jones) with 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. Czyz had 767 points and 359 rebounds in two seasons at Nevada.

Marcelus Kemp (third all-time in scoring with 1,939 points), Demarshay Johnson, David Ellis led the 2008 senior class. Fazekas (a program-record 2,464 points) headlined the 2007 class that also included Denis Ikovlev and Kyle Shiloh. Todd Okeson (685 points, 127 3-pointers, 189 assists in two years) and Gary Hill-Thomas (1,340 career points) left after helping to lead the Pack back to the NCAA tournament in 2003-04.

Jimmy Carroll, a .428 lifetime 3-point shooter, left after 1998 with Paul Culbertson (836 points in two seasons), Robin Kennedy (11.3 points a game his senior year), David Morgan (570 points, 536 rebounds in three seasons) and Marvin Wilson (364 points, 226 rebounds in two season). Jimmy Moore (856 points in two seasons) and Eathan O'Bryant (438 career assists) left after 1995. Kevin Soares (a program-record 716 assists to go along with 1,261 points) and Bryan Thomason (692 points in two seasons) left after 1991-92.

Darryl Owens (1,504 points), Gabe Parizzia (a 43-point game as a senior) and Chris Rupp (861 career points) were seniors in 1988-89. Rob Harden (586 points in two years) and Dwayne Randall (1,042 points, 550 rebounds in two years) left after the 1985-86 season. Curtis High (844 points, 338 assists), Tony Sommers (624 points, 423 rebounds) and Ed Porter (540 points, 300 rebounds) all left after the 1984-85 season and all played just two seasons at Nevada, leading the school to its first two NCAA tournaments.

There were, of course, great Wolf Pack senior classes before the team moved into Lawlor Events Center. The 1982-83 team had a Big Three of seniors Sam Mosley (750 points, 565 rebounds), Billy Allen (743 points, 468 assists) and Ken "Tree" Green (1,212 points, 316 rebounds). And all three played just two seasons in Nevada.

The 1978-79 Wolf Pack had arguably the best senior class until this year's team came along. That team, which won 21 games and went 14-2 at home, had seniors Edgar Jones (1,877 points, 1,120 rebounds, 180 blocks), Johnny High (903 points, 263 assists in two years), Steve Hunter (766 points, 301 rebounds in three years) and Mike "Fly" Gray (1,125 points 195 assists in two years). But they never went to the NCAA tournament once let alone three in a row. Pete Padgett (1,642 points and a program-record 1,464 rebounds) and Mike Mardian (374 career assists) left after 1975-76.

You could argue the 1978-79 team's senior class is on a par with this year's senior class. Jones is as good as any Pack player in history while Gray and High were big-time scorers. And Hunter was extremely underrated. Also, don't forget, they didn't have the 3-point shot in 1978-79.

But not even that talented and extremely entertaining senior class had the depth of this year's senior class. And they certainly didn't have the victories or play their games under the spotlight of a weekly Top 20 national ranking with the pressure of either going to the NCAA tournament or being labeled a huge disappointment.

A lot was demanded of this year's senior class. And, so far, they've given us more than even we asked for. So forget what may or may not happen next week and beyond. This year's senior class is already assured of leaving Nevada with memories that won't soon be forgotten.

Caroline has already scored 1,712 points (No. 6 in Pack history) and pulled down 927 rebounds (No. 5) in his three seasons at Nevada. Caleb Martin has scored 1,263 points with 198 3-pointers and 176 assists in just two seasons. Cody Martin has scored 851 points and dished out 325 assists in just two years.

Trey Porter has 218 points and 138 rebounds in just 509 minutes this year. Tre'Shawn Thurman has 237 points, 168 rebounds, 52 assists and 38 steals in 764 minutes. Corey Henson has chipped in with 83 points, 16 3-pointers, 20 assists and 13 steals in 352 minutes.

And, remember, they might have as many as 10 games left this year.

Saturday night promises to be etched in the minds of Wolf Pack fans forever. First of all, there's a Mountain West regular season title on the line. The Pack has to beat San Diego State just to finish in a tie for first. If the evening doesn't end with the Pack cutting down the Lawlor nets on Saturday, well, don't even think about it. The Pack, of course, wants to leave its fans for the last time on Saturday with tears of joy. Not tears of horror.

Losing on Senior Night, losing to a team for the second time in a row this season (the Aztecs beat the Pack in San Diego 65-57 on Feb. 20) and losing a Mountain West regular season title, all on the same night? Forget it. That might be Musselman's worst nightmare.

"He coaches like players play," Caleb Martin said of Musselman. "If he was able to have any eligibility left he'd put on a jersey and go out and do stuff himself."

But playing on Senior Night in your last game in front of likely the last time in your basketball life 10,000 or more fans will be cheering your every move, isn't easy for a young player. Kendall Stephens went 3-for-12 last year from the floor. Marcus Marshall scored 18 points in 2017 but he was just 6-of-19 from the floor. Jerry Evans went 1-of-8 for two points in 2014. Olek Czyz had just nine points on 2-of-7 shooting in 2012 and Marcelus Kemp had just nine points on 4-of-12 shooting in 2008. It's hard, after all, to see the basket with tears in your eyes.

But there have been some memorable Senior Night performances by Pack seniors in recent years. Tyron Criswell scored 20 points and had five assists in 2016. Deonte Burton scored 24 points with 11 assists and had one of the most electrifying dunks in Lawlor history in 2014 against UNLV. Malik Story poured in 25 points on six threes in 2013. Dario Hunt had 16 points and 14 boards in 2012. Nick Fazekas had his typical 22-point, nine-rebound effort in 2007. Kevinn Pinkney had a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) in 2005. Gary Hill-Thomas scored 18 in 2004 and Terrance Green had 16 points off the bench in 2003. Corey Jackson scored 11 points and had nine rebounds in 2002 and Richard Stirgus had 12 rebounds and eight points in 2001.

Given the ability of this group of seniors to do the unbelievable (see the NCAA tournament wins over Texas and Cincinnati last year), anything can happen on Saturday night. There might even be a little twin versus twin competition going on.

"If I see him do something good, I have to do something good, too," smiled Caleb Martin earlier this year.

Just make sure to bring a handkerchief or two to wipe your eyes so you don't miss a moment.

"In 20 years from now I want to be able to say I had a blast playing with these guys," Thurman said. "I love these guys."