With a smothering defense, Nevada sent a clear message to future opponents on Wednesday by dominating Utah State 72-49 in the opening Mountain West Conference men’s basketball game.
The sixth-ranked Wolf Pack improved to 14-0, which ties the 1951-52 squad for best start in school history.
“I don’t know that we’re sending a message, but that was the best defense from a starting five since I’ve been here,” coach Eric Musselman said.
The Aggies arrived having won three of its last four contests, losing only to the 21st ranked and undefeated Houston Cougars, and making field goals at the rate of 48 percent.
The Wolf Pack embraced a defensive identity from the outset, holding the Aggies to 33 percent shooting from the field and 18 percent from distance in the first half.
Nevada forced 11 turnovers, which led to easy transition baskets. Utah State entered the contest averaging 13 giveaways for an entire game. The Wolf Pack hit 3-pointers early and threatened to blow out the Aggies, extending the lead to 27-15 with 5:54 to go in the half.
The Pack then fell into old habits and started settling for shots beyond the arc. A 1-for-10 drought from distance allowed Utah State to climb back to within four points at 29-25 on junior guard Sam Merrill’s first 3-pointer of the game with 1:42 left. Merrill would lead Utah State with 16 points in the game.
But Nevada again clamped down on defense, forcing turnovers on consecutive possessions, and finished the half on a 6-0 run with the 11th largest crowd in Wolf Pack history, 11,224, roaring and on its feet with a 35-25 lead at the break.
“At Utah (on Saturday), I saw that the guys wanted to go play and compete, and the same tonight. I mean, it’s the last time these guys will play Utah State on their home floor. I hope we have that same juice moving forward,” Musselman said.
Nevada is one of four undefeated Division I teams. Utah State has been the loser the last five times it has faced the Wolf Pack.
The Wolf Pack’s first half defense, it turns out, was only an appetizer as the second half turned into a feast. All told, Nevada compiled an astonishing 15 steals. “It’s nearly impossible to get 15 steals in a college game,” Musselman said.
Nevada turned the heat up even higher, holding the Aggies to 23 percent from the floor and 17 percent from beyond the arc in the second half. Utah State finished with season-lows of 26 percent shooting and 49 points for the game.
“We played solid defense for all 40 minutes. This year we have a lot of guys that can really defend, rim protectors. We really help each other and play for each other,” Cody Martin said.
Jordan Caroline had his ninth double-double of the season and simply owned the glass in the second half against a strong rebounding team. Caroline led Nevada, finishing with a dozen boards, 15 points, and seven assists.
“We’re light years from where we were (in the exhibition loss) against Washington. I think it was a superb defensive performance by everyone,” Martin said.
The Wolf Pack next travels to The Pit in Albuquerque to face the New Mexico Lobos on Saturday. Their last visit saw one of the most remarkable comebacks in modern basketball history. “It’s a fun environment, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Notes: The Wolf Pack plays at New Mexico (7-6, 1-0 MWC) on Saturday at 5 p.m. PT. The Lobos won at Air Force 65-58 in their MWC opener. The game will air on ESPNU. … Jordan Caroline had his 36th career double-double. … Musselman is 40-15 MWC play and 22-5 at home. Three of those home losses came in his first year. … The Pack has gone 17-2 at home the last two seasons in MWC play and is 14-1 in the last 15 MWC home games. …. Tre’Shawn Thurman had a strong all-around game with 14 points, four steals, three blocks and four boards. … Caleb Martin failed to score in double figures for the first time this season. … All 11 players on the roster played in the game.
— Michael Smyth