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Wolf Pack shuts down Salukis

BY DARRELL MOODY

Nevada Appeal Sports Writer

RENO ” Holding a team to fewer than 50 points is a rarity in college basketball these days.

Nevada has accomplished that feat in back-to-back games after handing Southern Illinois a 62-48 defeat Sunday before a crowd of 5,845 at Lawlor Events Center.

The win comes on the heels of Nevada’s 95-39 demolition of Sonoma State on Tuesday. This one means more because Southern Illinois is one of the best teams Nevada will see this year.

The win also was big because it pushed Nevada’s record to 5-4 overall heading into Wednesday’s game against Arkansas Pine-Bluff, a team it beat 82-63 in the 2006-07 season.

“I’m proud of our team today,” Nevada coach Mark Fox said. “They have been put in a situation much like Southern Illinois. When you’re young and you have expectations , there is perceived pressure. They’ve kept fighting forward.”

The season is only nine games old, and Nevada has held two opponents to fewer than 50 points, something it failed to do last season. Nevada held opponents to fewer than 50 three times in the 2003-04 season, three times in 2004-05, three times in 2005-06 and once in 2006-07.

“That (defense) is one of the many things we need to work on,” said freshman forward Luke Babbitt, a Galena High School graduate. “We improved tonight. We still have a ways to go. It’s nice to see we’re improving.”

Fox said that the team isn’t doing anything differently compared to last weekend’s game against UNLV.

“We were able to stay in our stance longer and establish the help side more effectively,” Fox said. “We just played smarter defensively. We didn’t coach defense. We made them talk. It forced them to do it all.”

And it didn’t hurt that SIU went 1-for-19 from the floor to start the second half.

Nevada, which trailed 27-24 at the half, went on a 22-4 run in the first 11 1/2 minutes to open up a 46-31 lead.

“The first four possessions we missed layups,” Salukis coach Chris Lowery said. ‘We got the shots we wanted, but didn’t finish. We missed a lot of inside shots. When you have a chance to win the game, go do it. We can’t make mistakes or have misses when you have the opportunity.

“Give them credit. They played at home with a lot of energy. I thought we did a good job on (Nevada guard Armon) Johnson in the first half. He made all the plays in the second half. “

Johnson was a huge key in the final 20 minutes, and did most of his damage when Lowery switched Bryan Mullins off the Nevada sophomore. After taking an elbow to the eye which kept him out of action for approximately six minutes in the first half, Johnson drained 6-of-8 second-half field goal attempts en route to a team-best 16 points.

Malik Cooke started the 22-4 run with two free throws and a bucket to give Nevada a 28-27 lead with 18:20 to play. After Tony Boyle drained two free throws to give the Salukis a 29-28. Johnson and Christian Cornelius exchanged buckets, as the Salukis held a 31-30 lead.

Nevada scored the next 16 points for its 46-31 lead with 8:33 left, as Johnson knocked in a runner from the lane and a short jumper in the paint. Brandon Fields, who finished with eight points, added a three-point play and a 3-pointer, while Babbitt, who finished with 15 points, also drained a 3-pointer.

The Salukis, who were in the midst of a 9 1/2-minute drought during Nevada’s run, finally scored with 7:49 left when Tony Boyle converted a three-point play.

That started a 10-2 SIU run that trimmed Nevada’s lead to 48-41 with 6:28 remaining. Carlton Fay had five of his 10 points in that span.

Nevada took a timeout, and whatever Fox said to his team paid dividends. Nevada finished the game with a 14-7 run, holding the Salukis without a point for the final 4:14 of the contest. Johnson scored eight in that stretch, including six in the final 2:23.

Nevada shot 52.6 percent in the second half, knocking down 10-of-19 shots from the floor.

“We just locked in,” said Fields. “The second half has been a struggle. We just took good shots and knocked them down.”

Fox said he made no adjustments in the second half.

“The only change is that we have more experience than we did a week ago,” Fox said. “We made no adjustments at halftime or during the game. The team is still learning offense.

“It (the game) was exactly as we thought it would be. It was a hard competitive game. I have a lot of respect for SIU. That was a very good basketball game.”

And hopefully it’s one that Nevada can build on.

– Contact Darrell Moody at dmoody@nevadaappeal.com or (775) 881-1281