RENO — One year ago, Nevada’s program was a mess.
The Wolf Pack was coming off a nine-win season and was without a coach after Athletic Director Doug Knuth fired David Carter. So no, not many saw a championship coming in 2016. Enter two-time former NBA coach Eric Musselman.
Musselman engineered one of the best turnarounds in college basketball and on Friday night, he made a statement.
Nevada basketball is back. It’s not an April Fool’s joke.
After he led the Pack (24-14) to an 85-82 overtime victory against Morehead State (23-14) in the CBI championship game, the announced crowd of 9,043 chanted ‘Muss we Trust.’ They chanted it again after he cut the final strand of the net in his newly-donned CBI championship t-shirt.
“If anybody ever would’ve said at the end of the year we’d be standing here with a win heading into the offseason (I wouldn’t believe them),” Musselman said. “That first time we got together … I said I don’t know whether to cry or resign … These guys did an unbelievable job.”
Nevada was in control the majority of the night, trailing for just 3:32 of the of the 45 minutes. However, that’s where it found itself with less than 30 seconds remaining in overtime, 82-81.
Lindsey Drew dribbled baseline where he lost control. Fortunately for Drew, and Pack fans, the loose ball kicked to Tyron Criswell, who corralled Drew’s fumble and put it home with just 12.2 seconds left.
“I was going to the rim and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Criswell said. “My thought process was to get it up as fast as possible … that’s what I did.”
Criswell, a senior, finished his collegiate career with a game-high 21 points and was named the CBI Tournament Most Valuable Player.
Following Criswell’s bucket, Morehead’s Miguel Dicent drove coast-to-coast but his attempt to give the lead back to the Eagles amidst heavy traffic at the rim was off. D.J. Fenner corralled the rebound, was fouled, and hit both free throws with 1.5 seconds left to push the lead back to three.
Free throws were the biggest difference in the contest. Nevada hit 39-of-45 freebies (87 percent), while Morehead was just 6-of-13.
The Eagles still had time to try to tie the contest, and the half-court heave nearly went down before hitting iron and the celebration started. Musselman admitted he thought the shot was good.
“From my vantage point I was thinking ‘okay here we go, double overtime. Nevada basketball is really going to be trending now,’” he said.
As large as Nevada’s advantage at the free throw line was, it was free throws that helped Morehead State send the game to overtime.
The Wolf Pack led 75-73 with 6.7 seconds left in the regulation and put DeJuan Marrero, a 52 percent free throw shooter, to the line for a 1-and-1.
Marrero banked home the first shot and hit nylon on the second. Cam Oliver’s would-be game-winning three at the horn was short.
“I said ‘damn’ because the guy at the free throw line, I mean, he’s an awful free throw shooter, no disrespect,” said senior Marqueze Coleman who scored 11 points in his final game at Nevada. “I’m like, ‘you cannot be serious.’ I thought we did ourselves a favor by putting him on the line with that much time … We dug deep in overtime.”
Oliver went for another double-double in the win, finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Fenner had 17.
His bucket early in the second half pushed the Wolf Pack’s lead to 51-38 but following an Oliver bucket with 15:06 left in regulation, Nevada did not hit another field goal until Oliver came through again with 8:16 remaining.
Lamontray Harris responded to Oliver’s bucket with a triple, tying the contest at 61. The game was tied four more times in the remainder of regulation, leading into overtime where the Wolf Pack outscored the Eagles 10-7.
“I think when there was an extra five minutes, I think those guys believed in themselves and there was no panic at all,” Musselman said. “I think they understood they just had to get stops.”
Nevada led 41-34 at the break, doing most of its damage at the free throw line. The Pack was 17-of-20 in the first 20 minutes while the Eagles were just 1-of-4.
A 17-2 run midway through the half turned a 10-9 deficit to a 26-12 advantage. The 14-point lead was methodically cut down to 36-31 before Nevada went to the locker room with the seven-point edge.
The CBI title was the first postseason tournament championship in the history of the Nevada basketball program. It was also the first for a Mountain West team … Tyron Criswell said the team title was much more rewarding the individual accomplishment of tournament MVP, saying “It feels good to win the individual award but when you win the big one with your team, it feels so much better. Especially when you know your team’s been through so much.” It was the first team title in Criswell’s basketball career … Coach Eric Musselman took the PA microphone after the win and addressed the fans but it was tough to hear him. Here’s what he said he told the 9,034 in attendance: “I just think that what’s happened here, is something is building, the enthusiasm with the crowd, the student section tonight was absolutely phenomenal. We weren’t sure exactly what would happen with the attendance after a long year.” … Senior reserve Lucas Stivrins texted Musselman late Thursday night regarding his anticipation for the game. Nevada’s coach said that dedication is one of the most rewarding parts of coaching, saying “It brought tears to my eyes, about how he’s never won a championship in a team sport. That stuff is what college basketball is all about.” … The win on Friday night was Nevada’s fifth of the postseason. The most it had ever won before this year was two.