It wasn’t pretty, but Nevada pulled away from in-state rival UNLV 86-72 on Wednesday at Lawlor Events Center in Reno.
With a season-high 10,325 rowdy fans in attendance, The Wolf Pack shook off a cold offensive start to take home the first game of the annual Silver State Series.
Nevada shot just 36 percent from the field in the first half, but stifling perimeter defense and a constant presence on the backboards helped the Pack catch fire in the second half.
“I was really pleased with our effort tonight,” coach Steve Alford said. “It was a big game for us, and a big one for them, so for us to come out and play the way we did was huge. … I thought we did a lot of good things on both ends.”
The Wolf Pack improved to 12-8 overall and 5-3 and in a three-way tie for third place in the Mountain West Conference, behind 6-2 UNLV and unbeaten San Diego State.
Nevada hosts the New Mexico Lobos on Saturday, Jan. 25. Alford is one win away from 600 career wins in his 29-year coaching career. He coached New Mexico from 2007-13.
Nevada shot 43 percent from the field — including 52 percent in the second half — and 42 percent from 3-point range. Jalen Harris scored a game-high 28 points with five assists and two steals. Jazz Johnson, who didn’t score a field goal in the first half, had 19 points on 10-of-11 shooting from the free throw line.
Lindsey Drew added 15 points and six rebounds Nisré Zouzoua and K.J. Hymes combined for 19 points off the bench.
Drew bounced-back with a solid all-around performance. The senior guard was held to single-digit scoring in three-straight games.
“My teammates encouraged me to just keep my head up,” he said. “I just tried to stay aggressive. It was good seeing a couple shots go in and a few things bounce my way.”
Nevada made 25-of-29 free throws to keep the pressure on UNLV inside, a key stat Alford has emphasized throughout the year.
“I told the guys in the locker room to be excited about the win. But we should be even more excited getting our free throw goal,” Alford said. “We outscored our opponent by six on the line tonight, our goal is five. It’s the first time in 20 games we’ve done that so there was a celebration in the locker room.”
UNLV’s 13.1 offensive rebounds per game ranked first in the Mountain West heading into Wednesday’s matchup.
The Rebels won the rebounding battle 44-33 with 18 offensive rebounds, but Nevada didn’t let up on the boards. The frontcourt presence of Johncarlos Reyes, Robby Robinson, Hymes and Zane Meeks made it a difficult task in the paint.
“I like what our young guys are doing down low,” Alford said. “What Robby and K.J. did defensively and on the boards was good. Johncarlos had some moments and each of them had a little run.”
UNLV was held to 36 percent shooting from the floor and 28 percent from beyond the arc. Sophomore guard Bryce Hamilton scored a team-high 26 points with six rebounds. Junior guard Aumari Hardy added 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting.
Nevada mixed in a 2-3 zone and man-to-man defense to disrupt the Rebels’ offensive rhythm.
“I hoped the zone helped us. I need to look at the tape,” Alford said. “I thought we did a good job of it. … It helped us because we needed to stay out of fouling and that helped us a little bit.”
Harris, Johnson, Drew, Robinson and Reyes made up the starting five for the Wolf Pack.
Back-to-back 3-pointers from Harris and Drew put Nevada ahead 7-2. UNLV was held to just two points on 0-of-8 shooting for the first six minutes.
The Wolf Pack extended their lead to double digits capped-off by Nisré Zouzoua’s 3-pointer. UNLV trimmed into its deficit with physical play on the boards for second-chance opportunities.
Nevada led 33-27 at the half.
UNLV cut Nevada’s lead to two points four minutes into the second half. Johnson answered on the ensuing possession with a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Zouzoua’s second 3-pointer put the Pack ahead 61-49 with 10 minutes remaining.
The Wolf Pack found their rhythm in the second half and kept a double-digit advantage for the remainder of the contest.
Coming off a win, Alford is focused on Saturday’s win against his former team.
“Saturday becomes huge for us,” he said. “If we can get to 6-3 in conference at the midpoint of the year it’s a great accomplishment for this team.”
— Isaiah Burrows