Pack cruises past Idaho in WAC tourney opener
For the Nevada Appeal
RENO – The Nevada Wolf Pack sent a loud and clear message to the rest of the Western Athletic Conference on Thursday night.
“We’re peaking at the right time,” smiled sophomore Luke Babbitt.
Babbitt’s 21 points led a balanced and potent Pack attack in a convincing 87-71 beating of the Idaho Vandals in the quarterfinal round of the WAC tournament at Lawlor Events Center.
“Nevada came out, Luke Babbitt hit a 3-pointer and off they went,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “They played as good a first half as I’ve seen them play all year. Give them credit. They are going to be a tough out in this tournament.”
The Wolf Pack will play at 9 p.m. today (ESPN2) in the semifinal game against New Mexico State. Utah State (26-6) will meet Louisiana Tech (23-9) in the first semifinal at 6 p.m.
“Like Luke said, I think we’re playing real well right now,” Pack coach David Carter said. “But we can still play better. The best is yet to come. We still have a lot of good basketball ahead of us.”
The Wolf Pack (20-11), winners of 20 games in a season for seven consecutive years, came out of the locker room with a sense of urgency.
“Coach Carter has told us all along that if we lose, our season is over,” Babbitt said. “Nobody wants that.”
Babbitt hit a 3-pointer less than a minute into the game. The sophomore also had a steal and a layup, Joey Shaw scored inside, Dario Hunt had a dunk. And Armon Johnson hit two shots in the lane as the Pack exploded out to a 13-2 lead four minutes into the game.
“We kept telling our guys to weather the storm,” Verlin said. “We kept saying, ‘Weather the storm. They’ll start to miss some shots.’ Well, they just kept putting it in the basket. We never got the game in the tempo we wanted all night.”
Ray Kraemer came off the bench to drain a pair of 3-pointers less than a minute apart to give the Pack a 21-12 lead. Shaw then did the same a couple minutes later with a pair of his own treys for a 27-16 lead. A couple minutes after that, Brandon Fields turned the trick, drilling a pair from long distance to give the Pack a 33-21 lead with 8 minutes, 25 to play in the first half.
“Our starters just came out with great energy,” Carter said. “That was very important for us.”
The Wolf Pack made 13 of its first 18 shots, 7-of-11 from 3-point range.
“I was kind of surprised we came out shooting so well,” Carter said. “We haven’t been in a gym but once this week.”
“We’re a good shooting team,” said Babbitt, who was followed in the Pack’s scoring parade by starters Fields (15 points), Shaw (14), Johnson (13) and Hunt (12). “When those shots drop we’re a tough team to guard.”
The Pack’s 87 points are its most in a WAC tournament game since an 88-56 victory over Idaho in the quarterfinals in 2007 at Las Cruces, N.M.
“All five of our starters finished in double digits (in scoring),” Fields said. “That shows how well we shared the ball.”
Babbitt hit back-to-back runners in the lane off the glass with his left hand for a 41-23 Pack lead late in the first half. The Pack went into the locker room at halftime with a 47-34 lead after shooting .607 (17-of-28) in the first 20 minutes.
“We knew it was very important to come out in the second half and stretch the lead,” Fields said. “We were able to do that and get people some rest.”
Idaho’s Luciano De Souza, who scored a team-high 20 points thanks to four 3-pointers, cut the Pack’s lead to 47-36 in the opening seconds of the second half.
The Pack, though, proceeded to hit their next four shots – by Babbitt, Hunt, Johnson and Shaw – to take a commanding 55-36 lead. The Vandals never threatened the rest of the way.
“If you are going to beat a team on its home court in a game this big, you have to play very, very well,” said Verlin, whose Vandals finished the year at 15-16 and remain winless (0-5) in WAC tournament play in their school history. “And we didn’t do that.”
The Pack, now 15-1 at home, played extremely well from start to finish, from one end of the bench to the other. All 12 Pack players got into the game. Kraemer led the reserves with nine points in 19 minutes.
“This game ranks right at the top for me of all the games we’ve played this year,” Fields said. “Everybody played and played well.”
Fields converted an acrobatic layup to give the Pack a 60-40 lead with 16:30 to go in the second half. Babbitt connected on a dagger of a 3-pointer for a 65-40 lead with 12 minutes to go and also completed a 3-point play for a 70-49 lead with 10:25 left.
“The crowd was big tonight for us,” Babbitt said. “I’ve said it all along. I don’t think they even know how big of an impact they can have. We fed off their energy.”
The Wolf Pack, which won the 2006 WAC tournament in Reno and the 2004 tournament at Fresno, is 14-7 all-time in WAC tournament games.
“I wanted to treat this like any other game,” said Carter, now 1-0 in the postseason as a head coach. “I didn’t want us to play out of character. It’s basically still basketball. It’s the same game.”
The Pack is two victories away from its first NCAA tournament berth since 2007.
“We have high expectations,” Babbitt said.