Wolf Pack Nation rises, Joe Santoro says
Man, it feels good to be a Wolf Pack right now.
“It’s the happiest I’ve ever been in my life,” coach Eric Musselman said after his Nevada Wolf Pack’s how-did-that-just-happen 75-73 victory over the stunned Cincinnati Bearcats on Sunday.
The air smells fresher in northern Nevada this morning. The sky appears bluer and clearer, spaghetti bowl traffic is moving quicker than the snow melt flowing down Mt. Rose and every slot machine is coming up triple sevens.
The Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since Cody and Caleb Martin were able to grow facial hair.
And all is indeed well in Wolf Pack Nation.
Yes, that’s right. Wolf Pack Nation. Who knew the Wolf Pack had a nation? A few years ago, before Musselman came to town to change the face of Nevada sports forever, Wolf Pack Nation consisted of a polite gathering that most nights wouldn’t fill the drive-through lane at Starbucks. The Wolf Pack cheerleaders would fire t-shirts into the stands before the game and nobody would pick them up off the floor until the second half. Most of northern Nevada stayed away from Lawlor Events Center on game nights as if the Pack basketball team was a bunch of girl scouts and their parents trying to sell cookies in front of the doors at Wal Mart.
That all changed in a span of roughly 48 hours last weekend in Nashville, Tenn. The nation now knows the Nevada version of Wolf Pack is two words. It knows the University of Nevada is located in Reno. Heck, it now knows there are two universities in Nevada. The wins over Texas and Cincinnati not only put Nevada basketball back on the map, it colored that map silver and blue.
Guess what, Wolf Pack nation. You’re now members of the hippest, most exciting nation in all of college basketball.
The Musselmans (Eric, Danyelle, Mariah, Michael and Matthew), have replaced the Currys (Steph, Ayesha, Riley and Ryan) as the First Family of basketball. Talk about personality, energy, passion and break-your-heart smiles. If the Pack gets to the Final Four expect the Musselmans to get a sitcom on CBS by this time next week.
Musselman exploded into the locker room after the Pack’s improbable comeback wins over Texas and Cincinnati and repeatedly screamed one of George Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on television and then whipped off his shirt like a Chippendale’s dancer. And while those sort of things likely caused Loyola’s Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt to blush and cover here eyes and ears, it made Musselman the coolest coach in all of college basketball.
The Wolf Pack not only won a couple of college basketball games last weekend. It reminded an entire nation of what it means to battle and fight back through adversity. If you didn’t get inspired by the Wolf Pack last weekend, well, better check your pulse.
After falling behind by 14 (against Texas) and 22 (against Cincinnati) nobody would’ve blamed the Wolf Pack if they simply started to check the flight schedules to some faraway beach for spring break. No. 2 seeds (Cincinnati), after all, just don’t throw away 22-point leads with 11 minutes to go.
But Danyelle and Mariah never gave up. Their smiles only grew wider and more adorable. Eric, of course, will rip the shirt off his back before he ever allows his team to give up. And the Wolf Pack players, well, they might only be six strong. But in the final stages against both Texas and Cincinnati they looked like SEAL Team Six hunting down Osama bin Laden.
“We got the deer in the headlights look,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said.
The Wolf Pack over the final 11 minutes on Sunday resembled an 18 wheeler obliterating a stunned deer on the highway at 2 a.m. The Pack outscored the Bearcats 32-8 and didn’t allow a single successful field goal over the final 5:45. The Wolf Pack went on a ridiculously efficient 16-0 run in just 2:57 to cut that 22-point deficit to just six with just under eight minutes to play.
It’s doubtful any team in the long history of the NCAA tournament has ever played better in any three-minute stretch. Cody Martin scored the final six points of the run on a 3-point play and a 3-point shot. Kendall Stephens, who might be the best shooter in college basketball since a kid named Steph Curry at Davidson, drained a pair of threes. Cody also scored in the paint on that inspiring 16-0 run as did brother Caleb.
That sort of thing just shouldn’t happen in a NCAA tournament game ever, let alone when the team is down by 22 points down the stretch against a No. 2 seed. Cincinnati Bearcats channeled their inner 2016 Atlanta Falcons right before our eyes. And Eric Musselman turned into Bill Belichick, Danyelle Musselman turned into Gisele Bundchen and every Pack player turned into Tom Brady.
Think that 16-0 run was impressive? Well, the Pack then went on an even more inspiring 12-2 run over the final 5:18 to win the game. Cody Martin had another 3-point play. Josh Hall, who just might be the most underrated player in this entire NCAA tournament, had a layup to start the 12-2 run and a memorable offensive rebound and bucket in the lane to cap it off. Oh, yeah, Caleb hit a 3-pointer and Jordan Caroline went inside for a manly layup. The Bearcats left a bigger mess on the court in those final 11 minutes than that unfortunate dear left on the highway at 2 a.m.
“It got real, real physical around the rim,” Cronin said.
We know. We saw it. And still don’t believe it.
The best part of what we saw last weekend in Nashville? No, it wasn’t the smiles of Danyelle and Mariah. It wasn’t Musselman showing off his abs or making like a raunchy opening act on a Louis C.K. or Sarah Silverman album.
The best part of last weekend was nothing we saw against Texas or Cincinnati should’ve shocked anyone in the Wolf Pack Nation. We’ve seen it all before. We’ve seen the Pack come back from 20-plus points. We’ve seen the Pack score points in bunches. We’ve seen the Martin twins take over a game. We’ve seen opposing teams wilt and fade away under the Pack’s barrage. We’ve seen Stephens drain 3-pointers as if he’s just calmly plucking his favorite box of cereal off the top shelf. We’ve seen Musselman come up with miracle after miracle when a mere mortal of a coach would’ve simply sat down on the bench and taken his punishment.
The best part of last weekend was it was real. It wasn’t a fluke. The Pack didn’t get lucky. It went out and made its own luck. The Wolf Pack can do what it did last weekend again this weekend. And the weekend after that.
Don’t dare call this Pack team a Cinderella. It was ranked in the Top 25 for more than a month. It’s RPI was among the Top 20 most of the year. It was a No. 7 seed. They don’t give No. 7 seeds to Cinderellas. The Pack isn’t Florida Gulf Coast in 2013, Bradley in 2006, Cornell in 2010, Valparaiso in 1998, Chattanooga in 1997 or Richmond in 1988, teams that won a couple tournament games and had to run out of the dance well before midnight before their carriage turned into a pumpkin.
This Pack team just might take us right up to midnight.
“We’re not ready to go home,” Caleb Martin said. “We don’t think it’s impossible.”
Not after what we witnessed last weekend.
“This feeling is never going away the rest of any of our lives,” Musselman said.
The next two weekends could guarantee it.