RENO—As surprising as this year has been for the Wolf Pack, it’s suddenly reeling at the wrong time of the year.
New Mexico walked into Lawlor Events Center on Saturday night and handled Nevada 71-66, in a game that wasn’t that close, in front of 7,191 in the final night of the regular season. The lopsided Senior Night loss came just three days after a 76-57 no contest defeat at Boise State.
“Unfortunately the last 80 minutes of basketball has not been indicative of our team,” a scalding first-year Nevada coach Eric Musselman said. “They were a much better team tonight. Much better. Not even close.”
Nevada (18-12, 10-8) entered one game ahead of New Mexico (17-14, 10-8) for fourth place in the Mountain West, but with the loss, finished fifth. The Lobos, who snapped a four-game losing streak, slid into fourth thanks to a regular-season sweep of the Pack.
The two squads will square off again in their Mountain West Tournament openers on Thursday afternoon in Las Vegas. The winner will advance to play conference champion San Diego State (so long as Aztecs beat the winner of the 8/9 game) in the semifinals on Friday night.
“They were better. They were the tougher team,” Musselman said. “So we give New Mexico a ton of credit. Both times we played them they were struggling and we were the right recipe for them to get a win … We got a lot of work ahead of us between now and Thursday, an absolutely incredible mountain to climb to even get close to the level they play at.”
Nevada finished the year 11-3 at home but fell to 1-2 in games without senior guard Marqueze Coleman who missed his third straight game with a high ankle sprain. The absence of the team’s leading scorer was obviously a factor in the two one-sided losses to end the regular season. Coleman averages 17 points per game this season.
While Cam Oliver and Tyron Criswell were optimistic Coleman will return for the Mountain West Tournament, Musselman had different thoughts after saying the senior still can’t jog.
“Don’t count on him,” Musselman said. “I have zero hope that he will play. He’s continually tried.”
After trailing by 13 at the break, the lead grew to as large 20 and never got smaller than 13 until Nevada closed on an 18-6 run.
Criswell scored a game-high 20 points in what was likely his final game at Lawlor Events Center. D.J. Fenner had 17, Oliver had 13 (on five dunks) and Eric Cooper Jr. finished with 11.
Nevada finished shooting 36.8 percent from the floor (25-of-68) while New Mexico was 45.6 percent.
“Our shooting is absolutely painful to watch. Painful,” Musselman said.
At the half, Nevada was in a 41-28 hole.
Oliver threw down his third emphatic dunk of the first half to knot the contest at 19 only for Neal to hit a pair of triples to propel a 10-0 New Mexico run.
The Lobos grew the lead to as large as 41-26 with 1:17 left when Tim Williams converted an and-one.
Lindsey Drew hit a transition bucket with five seconds left to leave the Pack down 13 at the break.
With the 2015-16 season in the books, attention now shifts entirely to the Mountain West Tourney. Tip on Thursday is at 2:30 p.m. and will be aired on the CBS Sports Network.
“We just need someone to make shots,” Musselman said. “Probably two guys need to play really well. And New Mexico is extremely talented.”