RENO—No team can win a tournament without getting a little luck along the way.
Nevada didn’t play great basketball Wednesday night in game two of the CBI championship series. It didn’t even play good basketball. Fortunately for the home team, neither did Morehead State.
The Wolf Pack (23-14) grinded out an ugly 77-68 win over the Eagles (23-13) at Lawlor Events Center to fight off elimination following a loss Kentucky in Monday and forcing a winner-take-all game three on Friday night.
“We’ve extended our season. There are no more days to play,” first-year Nevada coach Eric Musselman said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of these guys to have gone all this way and put themselves in a position to play a game three.”
The two teams combined for 37 turnovers (21 for Nevada) and had their own respective adventures at the free throw line, a place both teams spent a lot of time. They combined for 66 free throw attempts as 49 fouls were called.
Nevada hit 27-of-42 freebies (64 percent) while Morehead State was 13-of-24 from the line (54 percent). The Pack did hit enough free throws in the final 1:39, however, going 8-of-12, to force a game three.
“Friday, we have to do a better job of converting from the free throw line,” Musselman said.
The biggest difference from Nevada’s win on Wednesday night compared to Monday’s 86-83 loss, was the defense, as the final scores would dictate. The Wolf Pack forced 16 turnovers while holding the Eagles 38 percent shooting from the floor (26-of-69) and 1-of-16 from deep, two days after Morehead State shot 49 percent and went for 86 points.
“We were really disappointed in not creating turnovers (on Monday), and tonight it was a little bit different,” Musselman said. “To hold a team to (38) percent in a series is tough to do.”
Nevada held Lyonell Gaines to just six points in five rebounds, a significant drop from his 27-point, 14-rebound performance in game one.
Offensively, D.J. Fenner carried the load for Nevada with a career-high 26 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the floor and a 10-of-11 night from the line.
With his team leading just 66-62 with 2:03 remaining, Fenner drained the biggest shot of the game, a transition triple that pushed the lead back to seven after Nevada had led by as much as 12. The Eagles would pull no closer.
“I was just finding my spots,” Fenner said. “Before the game I was really working on getting to the basket to see if I could finish, if not draw the foul. So I started getting to the basket early and things started working out for me.”
Behind Fenner, Cam Oliver recorded a double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds), Tyron Criswell finished with 12 points and Marqueze Coleman went for 10.
Nevada which led from the 10:28 mark in the first half on, saw its lead trimmed to 40-37 less than four minutes into the second half. The Pack responded with a 9-0 run, capped by Fenner’s first triple of the night, to extend the lead to 12.
The lead bounced around from seven and 12 points until the Eagles used an 11-2 run to claw within 63-60, setting up Fenner’s dagger.
After a first half that featured 19 turnovers, 13 missed free throws and a 9-of-32 shooting performance from the Eagles, the Pack led 33-27.
Eric Cooper Jr. canned the only three of the half, for either team, to give Nevada its biggest lead of the initial 20 minutes, 29-20. Brent Arrington answered for Morehead State on the next possession with 3:31 remaining. It was the last field goal either team made before the break.
The teams shot a combined 14 free throws down the stretch. Morehead was 5-of-8 and Nevada was 4-of-6.
The Wolf Pack and Eagles will decide the CBI title on Friday night, again in Lawlor Events Center, at 6 p.m. The third largest crowd of the season (7,431) showed up on Wednesday and Musselman said he would be “shocked” if Friday’s title game doesn’t sell out.
“I think it (title) would mean a lot,” Fenner said. “Obviously, there aren’t a lot of teams that end on a win. So I think it would mean a lot and give us a lot of momentum in the offseason.”