No. 20 Nevada Wolf Pack clinches at least a share of Mountain West regular season championship
Nov. 24: Nevada 67, Hawaii 54
Dec. 2: Nevada 76, UC Irvine 65
Feb. 25 —Nevada 92, Colorado State 83
Feb. 28 — 8 p.m. at UNLV
Mar. 3 — 7 p.m. at San Diego State
RENO – Confetti was flying freely around Lawlor Events Center Sunday afternoon, and as expected, Nevada coach Eric Musselman was running around shirtless after the Wolf Pack won its second straight Mountain West Conference regular-season championship.
Nevada, behind a combined 46 points from Caleb Martin (25) and Jordan Caroline (21), scored 52 second-half points and held off Colorado State, 92-83, before a crowd of 10,273.
The 20th-ranked Wolf Pack improved to 14-2 in league and 25-5 overall. Nevada finishes the regular season with road games at UNLV on Wednesday and San Diego State on Saturday. Boise State could also finish 14-4 in conference but Nevada wins the championship based on its regular-season sweep of the Broncos.
“It’s difficult to do what they’re doing,” said Musselman, whose wife Danyelle, wrote ‘Champs’ on his stomach. “You look at the past preseason favorites in the conference and see where they end up. It’s not always No. 1.
“The stats are remarkable. Very few times do they finish No. 1. I tried to release a little pressure in the preseason when I said we were overrated. I know when somebody puts a target on your back it’s hard, and when you get ranked, everybody gets up for you.”
The key, according to Musselman, is the team’s attitude.
“This is a tough-minded group; a group that believes in itself.” Musselman said. “I think it (the transfers) certainly helps. We have a guy from Purdue (Kendall Stephens), one from Iowa State (Hallice Cooke) and two from NC State (Cody and Caleb Martin). I think that helps in big games like at Boise. There are things that no coach can teach.
“I’d take Jordan (Caroline) in anything. He has a competitive nature. Whether he’s doing this or pick-up ball at the rec, he would not want to lose. We also have unsung guys like Josh Hall who have done a great job.”
That difference against the Rams came on the defensive side of the floor and rebounding. Nevada forced 17 CSU turnovers leading to 17 points, and the Pack also had a 30-22 edge on the glass in the final 20 minutes. Nevada had a 15-11 advantage in second-half points.
“Energy on the defensive end,” Caroline said when asked the key to the game. “We got a lot of steals and easy baskets. It energized us.”
“They made a couple of mistakes,” said Cody Martin, who had 17 points and 11 assists. “It (turnovers) was big. They had 17 and we had 7 and we got 17 points (off turnovers). I would say that was a big key in the game. Our approach definitely changed in the second half.”
Nevada led for 16 1/2 minutes of the first half, yet only walked off the floor with a 40-38 lead, as the Rams shot 54 percent from the field, including 46 percent from beyond the arc. The Pack struggled from beyond the arc, going 4-for-15, including a 1-for-5 effort by Kendall Stephens, who was playing with a splint on his thumb.
Musselman said that his team settled for 3-pointers in the first half instead of attacking the basket. That changed in the second half. The Pack was much more balanced offensively in the final 20 minutes.
The Rams’ Prentiss Nixon drained his sixth 3-pointer of the game to cut Nevada’s lead to 68-66 with 7:25 left in the game.
Nevada put together an 10-0 run to extend its lead to 78-66. Caroline scored on a lay-up, Stephens hit a big 3-pointer from the right corner, Caroline converted a three-point play and Caleb Martin drained two free throws with 6:02 remaining.
Colorado State wouldn’t go away, however, scoring five straight points to make it 78-71 with 3:33 left. Anthony Bonner (19 points) had a basket and free throw.
Two 3-pointers by Caleb Martin over the next 90 seconds plus two free throws by Josh Hall (12 points) gave the Pack an 86-75 lead with 1:23 left.
“Those were really big baskets,” Musselman said.
“I have a lot of confidence in Cody at point guard and Kendall,” Martin said. “They are always willing to make the extra pass. Even though Kendall wasn’t hitting (his shots), he’s always willing to give it to somebody else.”
The closest CSU came the rest of the way was seven points.
“It wasn’t one of better performances,” Musselman said. “Give CSU a lot of credit. They played extremely hard.”
But it ended with a win and a lengthy celebration.
“It’s a great feeling,” Caroline said. “I can’t describe it. It’s an awesome feeling winning back to back.”
“Feels really good, especially since last year I was sitting out and last year felt good, but I didn’t feel not too much a part of it,” Caleb Martin said.
And, Musselman & Co, stated several times that there is still plenty of work to do.