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Pack looking to excite fans

JOE SANTORO
For the Nevada Appeal

RENO – As far as Malik Story is concerned, there is just one way to get Northern Nevada to come back to Lawlor Events Center this winter.

“Excitement and wins,” the Nevada Wolf Pack junior said Thursday. “That’s what it takes. Hopefully that’s what is coming.”

If all it takes is excitement and wins, well, Lawlor Events Center should be packed to its 11,200 capacity this afternoon (3:05 p.m.) when the Wolf Pack hosts the UC Riverside Highlanders. The Pack, after all, is 4-1 at home this season (7-3 overall) and will take a four-game winning streak into the non-conference game.

“We’re excited,” senior center Dario Hunt said. “We still have a long ways to go but we’re on the right path.”

If it is excitement you want, the Pack certainly furnished it the last time they stepped out on the court at Lawlor, beating Washington, 76-73, in overtime on Dec. 2.

“It would mean the world to us to see the stands filled,” Story said. “It would show us that the community cares about us and appreciates what we’re doing. That means a lot.”

The Wolf Pack has averaged just 3,626 fans to its five home games this year. Last year’s average home attendance of 4,628 is the lowest for a full season since the Wolf Pack joined the Western Athletic Conference in 2000-01.

“As players we try not to think about how many people are there,” Story said. “It would be great if there were more fans but we have to focus on what we’re doing on the court.”

Northern Nevada might be on the verge of rediscovering the Wolf Pack very soon. The Pack has won seven of its last eight games and is coming off a pair of road wins at Arizona State and Montana. The Riverside game will open a three-game, 12-day home stand that also includes match-ups against Portland on Dec. 22 and Cedarville on Dec. 28.

“A big crowd gives you more energy,” said Carter who was an assistant under Trent Johnson and Mark Fox when the Wolf Pack averaged more than 8,000 fans a game from 2003-04 through 2007-08. Attendance, though, has declined every year since 2006-07 when an average of 8,903 fans crammed into Lawlor each game.

“Big crowds give you confidence,” Carter said. “When there’s a big home crowd, you always believe you can win even if you get down in a game. It rattles the opposing team. It does a lot for you.”

This Wolf Pack team saw that for itself on Dec. 2. A vocal and energetic crowd of 4,722 willed the Pack to victory against Washington.

“I can’t even explain it,” said guard Deonte Burton, who ignited the crowd that night with 31 points and one big shot after another. “It was just magical.”

It might not be long before Lawlor’s magic returns on a nightly basis.

Three victories against Riverside, Portland and Cedarville would close out the calendar year and give the Pack a 10-3 record heading into its first WAC game Jan. 5 at Idaho. The Pack hasn’t been at least 10-3 since the last NCAA tournament year in 2006-07 when it started 17-1.

“You have to win,” Carter said. “Everyone wants to be a part of a winner. When Trent (Johnson) and I first got here (before the 1999-00 season) that’s the first thing we talked about, how to bring fans to the arena. And the only way you do it is by winning.”

The emotional victory over Washington, which was followed by the two impressive road wins at Arizona State and Montana, is certainly a step in the right direction.

“You have to win games and you have to win big games,” Carter said. “I also feel that winning on the road plays a big part in it, too. Fans know how hard it is to win on the road and if they see you do that, they’ll show up when you come back home to play.”

Riverside (4-5) has won three of its last four games and is a veteran team led by 6-foot-4 senior Phil Martin (15.5 points a game) and 6-1 senior guard Kareem Nitoto. Nitoto, an Oakland, Calif., native, played two seasons against the Pack for Hawaii (2007-08 and 2008-09) and averages 9.3 points a game.

“That’s an experienced team,” Hunt said. “They won’t get rattled. They’ve seen it all before.”

“They are coming here expecting to win,” Carter said.

Riverside is coached by former Kansas State and Louisiana Tech head coach Jim Wooldridge. Wooldridge was an assistant under head coach Lynn Nance at Central Missouri State from 1982 through 1985. Carter was Nance’s point guard at Saint Mary’s in the late 1980s.

“We’re going to have our hands full,” Carter said.

Riverside, which plays in the Big West Conference, is also riding the wave of an emotional win. They beat Montana State, 75-73, on a last-second 3-pointer by 5-11 junior Robert Smith a week ago.

The Wolf Pack, though, is looking forward to the next three games at home.

“We’re beginning to learn how to win tough games,” Hunt said. “We’re learning how to win tight games, games that we wouldn’t have won last year. Our progress is clearly showing.”

The Pack, Story said, seems to have turned a corner.

“There’s more belief in each other,” he said. “Before there might have been some doubts. But now there’s a stronger belief in the entire team. But we also know we can get a lot better.”

“We haven’t reached our peak by any means,” Carter said.