Pack wins WAC regular-season title outright
For the Nevada Appeal
RENO – The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team was downright selfish Thursday night at Lawlor Events Center.
“Like I said, I don’t like sharing too much,” smiled Wolf Pack center Dario Hunt after a 65-61 victory over the New Mexico State Aggies.
The victory means the Wolf Pack won’t have to share this year’s Western Athletic Conference regular season championship.
“I’ve looked at pictures of other teams cutting down the nets since I was a freshman,” said Hunt, who wore a basketball net necklace around his neck to the post-game press conference. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
“We’re champions,” Pack guard Malik Story said. “And it feels great.”
The Wolf Pack, which clinched the WAC Tournament’s top seed and a share of the regular season title with a 79-76 triple-overtime victory at Fresno State last Saturday, didn’t put away the Aggies until the final minute.
“They never quit, they kept coming at us,” said Hunt, who had 10 points, six blocks and five rebounds. “We just did a good job of keeping our composure.”
New Mexico State point guard Hernst LaRoche threw the ball into the stands behind the basket with 1.1 seconds to play with the Aggies trailing just 63-61.
“I knew they weren’t going to shoot a three,” Pack coach David Carter said. “They were going to go for the tie. I just wanted us to play good defense and make them earn it. Fortunately we got the turnover.”
The Pack, now 24-5 overall and 12-1 in conference with one game left in the regular season Saturday night at Lawlor Events Center against Louisiana Tech, will leave the WAC after this season with seven conference championships.
“This was in the making ever since last season ended,” said senior forward Olek Czyz of last season’s 13-19 record. “We made huge strides this year. Everyone made huge sacrifices.”
“It’s like night and day,” said Hunt when asked to compare last year to this year. “This is just the result of months and months of hard work.”
The Wolf Pack definitely had to work hard to beat the Aggies, despite holding a lead for the final 37 minutes of the game. Story hit four 3-pointers in span of just 1:40 to key the Pack’s 43-36 halftime lead.
“At first I was struggling and I kind of thought, ‘Oh, no, not again,”‘ said Story, who was 2-for-16 from the field (0-for-8 from 3-point range ) at Fresno State. “But I just kept positive. I knew the shots would eventually start to fall.”
The bench also played a big role in the first-half lead as Devonte Elliott, Jordan Finn, Jordan Burris and Patrick Nyeko combined to score all eight consecutive Nevada points over a span of 3:26 as the Pack built a 24-15 advantage.
The second half, though, saw both teams limp to the finish line. Both teams shot just 30.8% (both 8-for-26) from the floor. The Pack was 7-for-9 on 3-pointers in the first half and 0-for-7 in the second half.
The Pack had a comfortable 63-54 lead after a lay-up by Story with just three minutes to play. Two minutes later it was a 2-point game (63-61 Nevada) once again.
“We were playing not to lose those last three minutes,” Carter said. “I think the guys got a little tight.”
The only Pack points in the final three minutes were two free throws by Deonte Burton with a second to play.
“Every possession counted in this game,” said Czyz, who led the Pack in scoring (for the fifth game in a row) with 15 points.
The Wolf Pack was very emotional after the game.
“This is the best championship I’ve been a part of in college,” said Czyz, who also won two state titles at Lawlor in high school as a member of the Reno Huskies. “I cut down the nets at Duke after the (Atlantic Coast Conference) tournament. This means more to me because I played a big part in this one.
“But everyone on this team played a big part in this. The whole team contributed.”
That was also the case against the Aggies as 10 different Pack players scored at least two points.
“This team really bought into committing itself to becoming a champion,” Carter said. “The guys were embarrassed by last year. They knew they were better than that but they were just inexperienced.
“It’s not easy to become a champion. It’s a long road. And it would have been easy for these guys to quit on us after what happened last year. But everyone dedicated themselves to this team this year.”
Carter credited much of the Pack’s success this year to its defense. That defense also held New Mexico State without a point for a span of 7:32 in the second half. Wendell McKines, who leads the WAC in scoring (18.4) and rebounding (10.5), hit a pair of free throws to cut the Pack’s lead to just 52-48 with 11:43 to play but the next time the Aggies scored the Pack was up 59-49 with 4:11 to play.
“Defensively, we’re better than people give us credit for,” Carter said. “Our defense keeps us in games.”
Defense wins championships,” Story said. “And we proved that this year.”