The Nevada Wolf Pack rallied around a fallen leader Wednesday night.
With senior point guard Marqueze Coleman on crutches for the majority of the second half, the Wolf Pack rallied to beat the Utah State Aggies, 73-68, in front of a crowd of 6,527 at Lawlor Events Center. Coleman, who leads the Pack in scoring and assists, crumbled to the floor after hitting a 3-pointer to tie the game at 37-37 with 16:20 to play and had to be carried off the court by his teammates.
“It’s too early to tell but he told me it’s the worst sprained ankle he’s ever had,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said.
Coleman’s injury seemed to inspire the Wolf Pack.
“We just picked each other up,” guard D.J. Fenner said. “We just told each other in the huddle that we have to get this one for Queze.”
The Wolf Pack, now 17-10 overall and 9-6 in the Mountain West, only allowed Utah State to take one slim (39-37) lead after Coleman’s injury. “When guys go down it’s important for guys to step up,” said Fenner, who had 14 points in 39 minutes.
“That (Coleman’s injury) motivated us to play harder,” senior Tyron Criswell said. “We all just wanted to get the win for him.”
Nobody played harder and under more trying circumstances than Criswell. The 6-foot-3 guard, who had 23 points and 16 rebounds, has been sick the past week. “Walking into the arena tonight with Tyron, I asked him how he felt,” Musselman said. “Against UNLV (in a 102-91 loss on Saturday) he had his most lethargic game with no energy because he was sick. I had no idea how many minutes I would get out of Tyron tonight.”
Criswell, who ended up playing 38 minutes, also had no idea how much he could contribute against Utah State. “Cold, stomach flu, chills, all of the above, I had it,” Criswell said. “At the end of last week I had a sore throat, running nose. It’s been a tough week.”
Criswell had 15 points and nine rebounds in the second half, attacking the basket relentlessly against the Aggies. His layup and free throw gave the Pack a 44-39 lead with just under 14 minutes to play and his jumper put the Pack up 46-41 with 12:37 left. His two most important baskets, though, came 31 seconds apart. His layup gave the Pack a 59-54 lead with 6:06 to play and half a minute later his jumper in the paint gave the Pack a 61-56 lead with 5:25 to play.
“The lane started opening up and I didn’t shy away from it,” said Criswell, who set a career high for himself in rebounds with 16. “I just kept attacking.”
“His quickness and athleticism against certain teams really stands out,” Musselman said of Criswell. “They couldn’t contain him off the bounce.”
The Wolf Pack led by as much as seven, 67-60, after a layup by Fenner with 2:35 to play. The Aggies, though, wouldn’t go away quietly. Darius Perkins and Chris Smith connected on 3-pointers to cut the Pack lead to just 67-66 with 1:47 to play. Those were the only two successful 3-pointers by the Aggies (13-13, 5-10) in the second half on 11 attempts.
“We held them to 30 percent shooting (actually 38.1),” Musselman said. “That’s hard to do against a good offensive team like that.”
A layup by Fenner gave the Pack a 69-66 lead with 1:24 to play and Fenner’s two free throws made it 71-68 with 19 seconds to play. Utah State had a chance to regain the lead with under a minute to play, down just 69-68, but the Pack’s Cameron Oliver (15 points, nine rebounds) blocked a layup attempt by the Aggies’ Jalen Moore with 34 seconds to go. “I saw that when he (Moore) gets the ball in the corner he just puts his head down and goes to the rim,” said Oliver, who had three blocks and now owns the school record for blocks by a freshman in a season with 68 (Dario Hunt had 67 in 2008-09). Utah State also had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds, down 71-68, but Pack guard Lindsay Drew stole a pass from Utah State’s Shane Rector with nine seconds left. Drew then made two free throws at the other end to put the game away with eight seconds to play.
It was Fenner’s play down the stretch, though, that impressed Musselman. The 6-foot-6 guard missed his first seven shots of the night but rallied to score 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting and two free throws in the final four minutes.
“D.J. just has that whatever thing how he carries himself, he’s over confident,” Musselman said. “He struggled from the field all night but he just has that ability to forget his last miss.”
“It’s important to have a short memory,” Fenner said. “You have to keep going. That’s what wins basketball games.”
The loss of Coleman, Musselman said, might have worked to the Pack’s benefit in the second half.
“I think they all just looked at each other and said, ‘OK, coach can’t take us out,'” Musselman smiled. “I’m only half joking. I think that allowed them to go out and play hard and not worry about making mistakes. That’s how a guy like D.J. could struggle all night and then get hot at the end.”
The Wolf Pack shot 58 percent from the floor in the second half after shooting 35 percent in the first 20 minutes.
“The pace of the game picked up to our liking,” Musselman said. “And the ball just had eyes on some shots.”
“We click better on offense when our defense is real good,” Fenner said.
The Wolf Pack will host Colorado State on Sunday at 2 p.m. at Lawlor Events Center. The final home game will be March 5 against New Mexico.