The rest of the Mountain West now knows what Nevada Wolf Pack fans have known all season.
The Pack is back.
The Wolf Pack, now 19-13 after winning just nine games a year ago, might have seen its NCAA dreams come to an end with a 67-55 loss to the San Diego State Aztecs Friday night in the semifinals of the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas. But the Pack also sent a message to the rest of the league that this is just the start of the Wolf Pack resurgence.
“I feel now that the future of this program is going to be bright,” said freshman center Cameron Oliver, who scored 21 points and had 10 rebounds and three blocks against the Aztecs.
Oliver wasn’t the only one at Thomas & Mack Center on Friday who felt that way. Aztecs coach Steve Fisher, who once coached the Michigan Wolverines to a NCAA championship, also knows that future Mountain West titles might have to go through Reno.
“They’ve got players now,” Fisher said. “They’ve got players who can play.”
The Pack, with Eric Musselman, also has a coach who can help them reach greatness.
“I think those of us who know him are not surprised in terms of what he’s doing and how he’s doing it and with the swagger,” Fisher said. “He’s got a swagger about him the right way. And his kids do, too. The right way. I just have great respect for his team.”
Fisher knows the Pack is coming. Fast.
“I just hope he (Musselman) doesn’t get too good, too fast,” Fisher said. “But he looks like he’s going to.”
The Wolf Pack battled the Aztecs on even terms, tying the game at 38-38 with 11:24 to go in the game. The Wolf Pack trailed at halftime 34-24 but came out of the locker room and outscored the defensive-minded Aztecs 14-4 over the first eight-plus minutes of the second half. The Wolf Pack also trailed just 48-44 with just 7:34 to go after a jumper by Eric Cooper.
But that’s when the tank hit empty for the silver and blue. Playing with basically just six healthy players and one who had a badly bruised ankle (point guard Marqueze Coleman) the Pack simply hit a wall in the final seven minutes.
“We had no legs,” Musselman said. “We ran out of gas.”
The Wolf Pack was just 2-of-10 from the field in the last 7:34 with five turnovers. Six of the missed shots in the final seven minutes came from beyond the arc. The Pack finished 2-of-16 on threes in the game and turned the ball over 20 times.
“We don’t go nine (players) deep,” Musselman said. “So, therefore, we had a lot of uncharacteristic mental mistakes. It’s no fault of our guys.”
The Wolf Pack, which has been going at a frenetic pace ever since Musselman took over the program last March, simply could not compete with the high-energy Aztecs with basically six and a half players. As Musselman said, it’s nobody’s fault. That’s just what happens when your senior All-Conference center (A.J. West) quits the team a month into the year and your senior point guard (Coleman) crushes his ankle after making a 3-point shot at home in late February.
“We ran out of bodies,” Musselman said.
The heart was willing. The bodies just finally wore out.
The Wolf Pack was trying to win this tournament with just two reliable scorers (Cam Oliver, Tyron Criswell). D.J. Fenner and Lindsey Drew, for example, were a combined 3-of-17 from the floor against the Aztecs and scored a combined seven points. That formula worked on Thursday against New Mexico (Musselman simply outcoached his protege Craig Neal on the Lobos bench) but against the Aztecs, well, that’s how the Aztecs win games. They eat you alive defensively. The Pack had its two lowest scoring outputs of the year (54, 55 points) against Fisher’s defensive dobermans this year. That’s not a coincidence.
The Wolf Pack had its scoring issues all year, especially from 3-point distance. And when Coleman for all intents and purposes lost the use of his left leg three weeks ago, well, that’s when Musselman had to resort to trying to win with mirrors. Coleman played 10 minutes against New Mexico and 11 against San Diego State on heart, desire and guts alone. There was no way he was going to sit on the bench in this tournament, even though Musselman kept insisting he had no hope that his senior point guard would play. But what we saw wasn’t even a remotely reasonable facsimile of Coleman.
“I thought we kind of owed it to Marqueze to give him a shot,” said Musselman, who saw Coleman’s backup (Drew) pick up two fouls in the first four minutes and then sit on the bench the rest of the first half. “Last night (Thursday against the Lobos) he wanted more of a shot. Your senior leader, you have to give him an opportunity.”
San Diego State outscored the Pack 16-9 over the final 3:30. The only two baskets the weary Pack made in the final seven-plus minutes was a 3-pointer by Eric Cooper with 1:16 to go and a dunk by Oliver with 14 seconds left.
The Aztecs are what the Wolf Pack wants to grow up to be. And the Pack, Fisher said, is almost there.
“They compete,” Fisher said. “They compete like champions.”
Musselman, who treats each loss like it’s the end of civilization, even found the words to praise his team after its most heartbreaking loss of the year.
“Tonight was indicative from an effort standpoint of how we’ve played all year,” he said. “I think everybody in Reno and associated with the Wolf Pack has to be happy with the effort that these guys have had all year.”
This was as close to a good loss as Musselman will ever allow.
“It means our hard work paid off,” Criswell said. “I was glad I was able to do it with a group of guys that really worked hard everyday.”
“We’re leaving here with our heads up high,” Oliver said. “We fought this whole season.”