Jordan Caroline and Caleb Martin each scored 19 points as the No. 6 ranked Nevada Wolf Pack held on for a 68-62 victory over the Akron Zips on Saturday night in their last home contest of 2018, but it wasn’t without some familiar consternation.
Akron on the Mid American Conference came into Lawlor Events Center with the NCAA’s 18th ranked scoring defense, limiting opponents to 39 percent from the floor and 31 percent from distance. Their record included four losses, but only by a combined 12 points.
“Akron likes to slow the pace and take the air out of the ball, which helps to keep their games close,” said Coach Eric Musselman.
Musselman said earlier in the week that the 12-0 Wolf Pack’s focus was defense and getting to the charity stripe, but Nevada only made two trips to the line in the first half, going 2-4, while attempting 15 shots from beyond the arc, making four.
“I feel like the Grinch. I gotta be better as a coach. Offensively we’ve regressed. We’re not getting better, we’re getting worse and worse and worse… That’s not on the players, that’s on us as coaches,” Musselman said. “Bad first halves — it’s the most frustrated I’ve been in four years here.”
That strategy wasn’t fruitful as Nevada came up empty on its first 11 three-point attempts, despite plenty of wide-open looks. With just under six minutes to play in the first half they found themselves trailing yet another scrappy foe 20-11.
“Teams are compacting the lane against us. We’re getting good shots, we just have to make them,” said 2017 MWC Defensive Player of the Year Cody Martin.
Fortunately, Martin and Caroline rediscovered their three-point shooting touch just in time to propel the Pack on an 11-0 run and flip the scoreboard. Nevada clawed back to a 28-25 lead at the break.
“We’re not taking bad shots, they’re wide open. We just have to make them. I’m a good enough player, I’m going to keep shooting, I know eventually they’re going to fall. I’m not worried,” said 2017 MWC Player of the Year Caleb Martin.
At halftime, the coaching staff apparently delivered a message emphasizing the importance of the inside game and free throws. Nevada would make 20 trips to the stripe, while limiting three-point attempts to nine, making four in the second half.
Nevada immediately established its offense inside, with Caroline and Caleb Martin forcing the issue. Martin added 10 rebounds and three blocks in the game.
While there has been much discussion of the depth on this year’s Nevada squad, only seven players saw action on Saturday. Tre’Shawn Thurman, Caroline and the Martin twins each played more than 36 minutes. Jazz Johnson returned from the concussion suffered against Grand Canyon, playing 29 minutes and added two three-pointers and four free throws for his 10 points.
“Coach is going to play the players that get us the “W.” But guys’ attitudes aren’t changing, they’re coming to work each and every day,” Caleb Martin said.
Nevada increased its defensive pressure, but the Zips kept the game within single-digits. Las Vegas native Channel Banks had 11, while Jimond Ivey and Daniel Utomi hit their averages, chipping in 15 and 14 points respectively.
The Wolf Pack threatened to pull away several times but found itself in a dogfight with 1:41 left and a slim three-point edge at 60-57. Caleb Martin’s three-pointer with 45 seconds left-and perfect free throw shooting from Johnson and Thurman kept Akron at bay.
Notes: Nevada’s 25 points first half points are their second lowest output this season… Caroline passed Kirk Snyder (2001-04) on the Nevada career scoring list… He has 1,709 career points including his time with the Eastern Illinois Salukies… The 68 points was a season low for the Wolf Pack… The 12-0 start is the best in the Division I era for the Wolf Pack that began with the 1969-70 season. The best overall start was 14-0 by the 1951-52 Pack squad… Caleb Martin and Caroline have scored in double figures in every game this season… Tre’Shawn Thurman tied his Pack career high with nine rebounds. It is the fourth time Thurman has grabbed nine boards in a game this season.
— Michael Smyth