Nevada grinds out win over Colorado State for first Mountain West Tournament title, Caroline named tourney MVP
The pundits said Nevada had no chance of an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament. The quality wins weren’t there. The strength of schedule lacked. The Mountain West was down.
It matters not.
Nevada (28-6) took the decision out of the selection committee’s hands on Saturday, grinding out a 79-71 win over Colorado State (23-11) at the Thomas and Mack Center to claim the program’s first MW Tournament title and grab the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth. It will be Nevada’s first appearance in the Madness since 2007.
“Probably the biggest thing is just thanking these guys for believing in a vision,” said Nevada coach Eric Musselman who inherited a nine-win program two years ago. “Everybody but D.J. (Fenner) is guys that came when we were here, and we told them what we thought we could do. And I told them in the locker room, thanks for believing in us, and for D.J., thanks for sticking around and trusting us.”
The victory was the Wolf Pack’s second in a title game over the Rams in a week. Now riding a nine-game winnings streak, its longest since the 2011-12 season, Nevada beat Colorado State, 85-72, last Saturday at Lawlor Events Center in the regular-season finale to win the conference’s regular-season title.
Nevada’s offense picked up where it left of in Friday’s semifinal win over Fresno when it scored 62 points in the second half against the Bulldogs. Nevada couldn’t miss early, hitting 57.6 percent of its shots before the half, 6-of-14 from beyond the arc, and leading by as much as 16.
Led by senior Gian Clavell, the MW Player of the Year, the Rams battled back. Clavell hung 30 points on the Pack for the second time in a week and helped pull Colorado State even at 51 with 11:33 left.
Prentis Nixon (23 points on 6-of-10 shooting from deep) capped the 19-7 spurt to pull the teams even. Nevada answered with a momentum-swinging 9-0 run. Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy aided the run with a technical foul.
Colorado State again fought back, getting within 66-65 at the 2:38 mark, only for Nevada to again counter. A 7-0 run put the Pack up 73-65 with 33 ticks left and started the celebration.
Marcus Marshall’s two free throws put the conference champs up eight. Free throws were the one thing that went well for Nevada’s offense in the second half. The Rams held the Pack 4-of-22 from the field (18.2 percent) out of the locker room. Nevada lived at the line, though, hitting 26-of-34 free throws after missing its only attempt of the first half.
Jordan Caroline appeared unstoppable at times and filled in for Cam Oliver, who had an uncharacteristically quiet offensive night after picking up two early fouls. Caroline scored 23 points and pulled down 10 rebounds. He was named the MW Tournament MVP.
“I wanted to help my team any way I could to get to the tournament, not just scoring, any way I could,” Caroline said. “And like defensively, I just wanted to play hard defensively, take it upon me to guard people like (Emmanuel) Omogbo, First-Team players, that was really it.”
Marcus Marshall was just 1-of-9 from deep, but hit 12-of-16 free throws to finish with 21 points.
Despite a quiet night scoring the basketball, Oliver (four points, 2-of-9 shooting) impacted the game on the defensive end. He pulled down a game-high 14 rebounds. Nevada and Colorado State were two of the better rebounding teams in the MW this year and the Pack won the battle on the glass, 46-34, including a stretch from the 1:39 mark until the final seconds when it grabbed nine straight.
“The theme entering this tournament, and even the last regular season game, was we just have to defend and rebound,” Musselman said. “And so to say that a team would go 4-for -22 and figure out a way to win, I mean again, Coach Eustachy’s teams are always great defensive teams and physical. And this game was won on the glass.”
Freshman Josh Hall grabbed the largest of the nine, an offensive board with 1:10 left and Nevada up 69-65. He was fouled on a put back attempt and calmly drilled the two biggest free throws of life, extending the lead to six.
He finished with 12 points (three shy of his career high) on 4-of-6 shooting, and drilled his only three ball – a wide open shot from the corner almost six minutes into the second half that was the Pack’s first bucket out of the locker room.
“That’s one of the things that we’re so excited about is our young players that have come into our program as freshmen. And Josh’s development, incredible,” Musselman said. “He’s not a guy that we look to offensively, but the play of the game was his left-handed layup and-one. And then right when we put him in the game he’s in the right corner and banks a three. I just thought his contributions were absolutely incredible because we didn’t run a play for him and he had 12 points.”
Nevada will find out where it will open the NCAA Tournament, and against whom, during the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. on CBS.
ESPN ‘Bracketologist’ Joe Lunardi had Nevada pegged as a No. 12 seed, playing No. 5 SMU, in Milwaukee in his latest bracket before Saturday’s MW title game.
“We’re happy that we’re going, but we’re going there to compete and try to win,” Musselman said. “And we’re not just going there and saying, ‘hey, we’re a mid-major and we’re in this tournament.’ We’re going there to win.”