As he so often seems to with the game on the line, Nevada’s Jordan Caroline came up big in the clutch again. The senior power forward led all scorers Saturday night with 21 points, including 12 in the second half as the Wolf Pack overcame a strong effort from pesky South Dakota State to prevail 72-68.
Nevada improved to 11-0, the Pack’s best start in its Division I history.
Returning home for the first time in 25 days didn’t change the way many first halves have gone this season. “Bad first half, great second half … again,” said a mildly exasperated coach Eric Musselman.
Despite 11,257 fans cheering them on and a hot start from outside the arc to build an early 7-point lead, the Wolf Pack found itself trailing 40-33 when Jackrabbits guard Alex Arians hit a three-pointer at the buzzer.
“They used kind of a sagging zone to clog up the paint, and we were just shooting threes,” Musselman said. Nevada obliged by taking shots from distance, launching 22 threes (8-22) and only attempting six shots from inside the stripe, making just one.
The Jackrabbits arrived featuring senior All-American candidate Mike Daum, the Summit League’s all-time leading scorer who came in averaging 26.2 points and 10.8 rebounds. In the first half, Nevada held Daum to a stingy two points on 1-of-6 shooting, with Trey Porter and Tre’Shawn Thurman drawing the primary defensive assignments.
“(Daum’s) a phenomenal, phenomenal offensive player,” Porter said. “We focused on stopping their two stars (Daum and guard David Jenkins) this week.”
“That’s probably the single best defensive performance that Daum has seen, and the best defensive performance by one guy (Porter) since I’ve been coaching here,” Musselman said
Even though Nevada checked the “defend their best player” box, the rest of the defense was successful only in spurts and the diminutive Jackrabbits took advantage by hitting open threes and driving to the basket against sometimes flat-footed Nevada defenders. Freshman Owen King had 10 points on 100 percent shooting to pace the visitors in the first half.
The Wolf Pack wasted little time erasing the deficit in the second half with a 12-3 run to lead 45-43 on Jordan Caroline’s dunk with 16:39 to play.
Both teams lost star players to foul trouble early in the second half with Nevada’s Cody Martin and South Dakota State’s Daum each picking up their fourth foul around the 14-minute mark.
The Jackrabbits’ smaller lineup continued to give the Wolf Pack defense trouble, repeatedly a step faster to the hoop, clawing back to tie the game at 56 with 7:42 left.
Nisre Zouzoua took the minutes of Jazz Johnson, who was a scratch due to a concussion suffered against Grand Canyon. But he couldn’t match Johnson’s team-high shooting percentage. “We missed Jazz’s threes and the pop he gives us off the bench,” Musselman said.
Cody Martin and Daum both returned with 6:29 to go, but Daum fouled out exactly two minutes later. Nevada’s focus paid off, as Daum exited tying his career-low with five points on 1-10 shooting.
It didn’t seem to faze the Jackrabbits, however, as they hung tough on Skyler Flatten’s fourth three-pointer to crawl within two at 65-63 with less than three minutes left.
Nevada pulled ahead 69-63 with 2:16 to go on a pair of Porter free throws. The next 90 seconds of play were frenetic, as both teams sensed it was still anyone’s game. Solid Wolf Pack defense when it mattered most held South Dakota State off the board and Jordan Caroline’s emphatic dunk with 46 seconds remaining sealed it.
Notes: Musselman ups his non-conference record to 26-0 at home. It was his 92 win, moving him inot sole possession into seventh on the Pack’s all time career victories list. … Nevada’s 39 three-point attempts is a school record. South Dakota State committed 24 personal fouls to Nevada’s 12. … The Wolf Pack won the turnover battle 15-6. … South Dakota Stage sophomore guard David Jenkins was also held to five points. … Daum and Jenkins came in averaging a combined 48.7 points per game. … 11,257 was the 10th largest crowd at Lawlor Events Center for a Nevada game. … The Wolf Pack next takes on Akron on Saturday, Dec. 22 at 4 p.m.
— Michael Smyth