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Wolf Pack snaps losing streak

JOE SANTORO
For the Nevada Appeal

RENO – The latest episode of the Nevada Wolf Pack’s growing pains had a happy ending Monday night.

“It’s just nice to get a win, finally,” Wolf Pack freshman Jerry Evans said after Nevada’s 79-73 victory over the Portland State Vikings at Lawlor Events Center. “We finished the game strong.”

Finally.

The Wolf Pack, which has lost four games by three points or less this year, did most everything right down the stretch to improve to 3-8 on the year.

“We’re growing together,” said sophomore Malik Story, who had a team-high 20 points. “As a team, we’re just gelling and coming together more.”

“We’re adapting to each other,” said Evans, who came off the bench to score 12 points

The Wolf Pack converted 11-of-12 free throws in the final four minutes and outscored the Vikings 15-9 over the final 2:51 to pick up the non-league victory. The Pack, which was shooting 69 percent from the free throw line coming into the game, made 19-of-23 free throws (83 percent) against the Vikings.

“The guys understand we need to make free throws down the stretch,” Pack coach David Carter said. “Free throws are a big part of closing out games. That’s very important for us.”

The Wolf Pack, which led by as many as 12 (31-19 in the first half), found itself tied at 64-64 with the Big Sky Conference’s Vikings late in the second half. A 3-pointer by Deonte Burton and an eight-foot jumper in the lane by Derrell Conner, though, gave the Pack a 69-64 lead with 2:09 to play.

“Those two shots were huge for us,” Carter said. “That gave us the momentum back.”

The Wolf Pack then made 10-of-11 free throws in the final 1:47 to hold off the Vikings (6-5).

“Getting a win was huge for us,” Carter said. “But even more important was the way we won it. We had a lead, they caught us and took a lead and we battled back and closed it out. That was big for us. We haven’t been doing that.”

But it wasn’t pretty. The two teams combined for 40 turnovers (20 each).

“We have to get better at taking care of the ball,” Carter said. “That’s the most glaring stat we have on the negative side.”

The Pack turned the ball over 11 times in the second half after building a 33-28 halftime lead.

“A lot of those turnovers were unforced,” Carter said. “A lot of them were careless. At times, we’re just catching and passing the ball like we’re in a practice. That’s something we have to correct.”

The Pack led at halftime despite missing 23 of its 34 first-half shots. It also missed 11-of-16 3-pointers.

“Against a zone like they play for 40 minutes you have to shoot a lot of threes,” Carter said. “It’s just the type of threes that we need to correct. I thought we threw up some shots a little too early. Against a zone, you have to be a little more patient.”

Story, who was 4-of-10 from beyond the arc, drained a 3-pointer just seven seconds into the second half for a 36-28 lead to set the tone.

“I just tried to come out aggressive,” Story said. “I thought we were a little too passive against their zone in the first half.”

“Malik came out and was aggressive,” Evans said. “And that made it easier on the other guys.”

Portland State, though, took its first lead of the game (45-43) on a layup by Chris Harriel with 11:43 to play. The Vikings led by as much as four, 47-43 on a pair of free throws by Phillip Thomas with 10:47 to play and 50-46 on a 3-pointer by Harriel with 10:18 to play.

The Vikings also led 62-59 with 4:44 to go after Chehales Tapscott scored over Olek Czyz in the paint for a 3-point play.

Evans, though, started the Pack comeback by driving the right baseline for a bucket and free throw for a 3-point play to tie the game at 62-62. Kevin Panzer then gave the Pack a 64-62 lead with 3:45 to play on a tip-in off a missed 3-pointer by Conner.

Panzer had 11 points and five rebounds in his 21 minutes.

“We were kind of laughing in the locker room after the game because Panzer finally got a physical foul,” said Carter with a smile. “Most of his fouls have been on the perimeter. We need him to be more of a physical player inside.”

Panzer, who did bank in a 3-pointer off the glass for an early 7-2 Pack lead, scored most of his points from right in front of the basket. He also scored twice inside late in the first half as the Pack took a 40-34 lead.

“That (scoring inside) is starting to be a big part of my game,” the 6-foot-9 Panzer said. “My coaches keep telling me to work inside for easier shots inside and that’s what I did tonight.”

The biggest thing the Pack did on Monday was simply get a victory. The Wolf Pack now heads out on the road for games at Washington (Wednesday) and Portland (Dec. 27) before returning to Lawlor on New Year’s Eve against Hawaii in its Western Athletic Conference opener.

“This is real big for our confidence,” Story said. “It’s big for everybody’s confidence. Winning this game is going to help us go on the road.”