Pack basketball team bounces back from emotional loss
For the Nevada Appeal
RENO – Losing a second home game in a row was totally out of the question for the Nevada Wolf Pack on Saturday night.
“We had to get this win,” sophomore Luke Babbitt said after the Wolf Pack’s 76-68 victory over the Idaho Vandals at Lawlor Events Center. “We couldn’t lose two in a row. This was a good bounce-back win. We needed this coming off of Wednesday.”
The Wolf Pack, now 11-7 overall and 3-2 in the Western Athletic Conference, won’t forget Wednesday night anytime soon, Babbitt said. That was the night the Pack wasted a 10-point lead with seven minutes to play and lost in overtime to the Utah State Aggies, 79-72.
“Wednesday was in the back of my mind,” Babbitt said. “I’ll remember that game probably forever. We needed to learn from that and I think we did. Now we know how to play with a lead.”
How did the Pack play with a lead against the Vandals?
Well, the Wolf Pack outscored Idaho 25-9 over the final 10 minutes of the first half to take a 36-30 halftime lead. The closest Idaho got to the Pack in the second half was six (45-39 with 16:32 to play). The Pack led by at least eight points over the final 16 minutes of the game.
That is how you play with a lead.
“We just played with a lot more aggressiveness,” said Brandon Fields, who scored 14 points.
That was the lesson learned from Wednesday night’s memorable meltdown.
“Nobody said anything about that game (during Saturday’s game) but it was in the back of our mind,” said Babbitt, who scored a game-high 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting. “We tried to be the aggressor all night.”
Idaho (8-8, 1-4) was equally aggressive in the first 10 minutes of the game, taking a 21-11 lead. Steffan Johnson, Marcus Lawrence and Luciano De Souza all hit 3-pointers to key the Vandals’ fast start. Idaho’s surge over the first 10 minutes combined with Utah State’s even faster finish over the final 12 minutes on Wednesday added up to the Pack being outscored 45-18 over its last 22 minutes on the court.
The Pack, though, didn’t panic.
“When you are coming off an emotional game like we had Wednesday night you kind of have to expect a start like that,” Pack coach David Carter said. “We missed some shots and the guys were kind of rushing things. I just told the guys to keep shooting. I knew once the game settled down that we’d find our rhythm.”
A Ray Kraemer 3-pointer with 10 minutes to play in the first half was all the Pack needed to find its rhythm. The Pack dominated the rest of the first half as Babbitt and Armon Johnson took over.
Babbitt jump started the run with a pair of flashy assists, finding Dario Hunt and Johnson for dunks as the Pack cut Idaho’s lead to 24-20 with seven minutes to play in the half. Babbitt then put back an offensive rebound for a bucket and later drained a 10-foot jumper and two free throws to tie the game at 26-26 with 3:53 to go.
Johnson drove the lane for a 3-point play, giving the Pack a 29-28 lead with 2:54 to go. It was the Pack’s first lead since a 5-4 advantage. The Pack closed the half on a 7-0 run over the final 90 seconds as Babbitt hit a jumper and Johnson converted another 3-point play off an inbounds pass and hit a fade away jumper with six seconds to go.
“We always tell the guys, close out the half strong, close out the game strong,” Carter said. “Anytime you get that type of momentum going into the second half, it’s big.”
“We weren’t worried when they (the Vandals) got that lead because we know we can come back at anytime,” Fields said.
The Vandals, who have now lost four games in a row, never made a serious run in the second half. Their top scorer, Mac Hopson, played the bulk of the second half in foul trouble and eventually fouled out with 19 seconds to go.
“He was still aggressive but we just did a good job defensively on him,” said Johnson, who had 17 points, five assists and three steals. “We just paid attention to him the whole night.”
Carter, though, admitted that Hopson was hindered by his foul situation. The 6-foot-2 senior, who played just 12 minutes in the second half, picked up his third foul with 18 minutes to play and his fourth with 11 minutes to play. He finished with 16 points in just 25 minutes.
“When you get in foul trouble that takes away some of your aggressiveness,” Carter said. “I think that really hurt them because he wasn’t able to play a lot of minutes.”
Hopson, who had attempted just three shots in the game’s first 32 minutes, became more aggressive in the final four minutes with the Vandals trailing by a dozen (67-55). He scored on a pair of layups and hit a 3-pointer in a span of 1:35 as Idaho cut the Pack’s lead to 72-63 with 1:30 to play.
Fields, though, hit three free throws down the stretch to secure the victory. The Wolf Pack has won nine of its last 12 games overall and improved to 9-1 at home. The Pack will go on the road for games at Boise State on Wednesday and at Fresno State on Saturday.
Carter is just happy they will leave town with good thoughts.
“That is very big,” he said. “It’s always important to get that last game at home before you go on the road. I talk to the guys a lot about baseball and it’s like baseball, getting that last game of the series on Sunday before you leave town. That’s important.”