Nevada Wolf Pack use hot start in convincing win over Utah State
RENO — All week long, Nevada coach Eric Musselman stressed the importance of containing Utah State sharpshooters Koby McEwen and Sam Merrill.
The Wolf Pack held the Utah State stars to a combined 15 points, 15 below their season average, en route to a dominating 83-57 win Saturday night before an announced crowd of 9,976 at Lawlor Events Center.
Nevada improved to 5-0 in conference, its best start since joining the MW. The Pack is the lone unbeaten in the MW. Nevada also improved to 16-3, matching last year’s start.
McEwen scored just 10, four under his average, on 3-for-12 shooting, while Merrill tallied just five, 10 under his average on 2-for-11 shooting. The Aggies shot just 33 percent from the floor, including a 12.5 percent from beyond the arc.
And, Nevada forced 14 turnovers leading to 28 points.
“We talked all week about guarding McEwen and Merrill, and I thought we did a phenomenal job on those two,” Musselman said. “The defense was so locked in. Guys bought into the game plan. We went back to stuff we used in years one and two. We trapped a lot on the ball.”
Caleb Martin said the week off benefited the defense more than the offense.
“Just getting legs back under us,” said Martin, who finished with 15 points. “We don’t have trouble trying to score because we have so many shooters out there. The rest helped the defense. We had active hands.
“It was the most complete defensive game we’ve played. We have carry that defensive mentality into the San Jose State game.”
Musselman said the defense was a major reason why Nevada got off to one of its best starts of the season. The 50-26 lead equaled the start the Pack had at Santa Clara in a 93-63 win back on Nov. 15.
Nevada used two huge runs to build the 24-point lead at the half. Nevada shot 58 percent (18 for 31) and held the Aggies to 30.6, including 11.1 percent from beyond the arc.
Nevada spotted the Aggies a basket and then ran off 13 straight points over the next three-plus minutes. Cody Martin had five and Caleb Martin added four in that span.
After the Aggies cut the lead to 29-24 with a 10-2 surge of their own on the strength of two 3-pointers by McEwen, Nevada put together a 17-0 surge to go ahead 46-22.
Kendall Stephens, who scored 13 off the bench in the opening half en route to 19 for the game, started the surge with two free throws. Jordan Caroline and Lindsey Drew scored on back-to-back possessions in a 30-second span to make it 35-24 with 6:24 left.
Utah State went scoreless on its next two possessions, and Drew, who scored 11 points, scored off glass after the second empty possession. Following a missed shot and turnover on the ensuing possession, Stephen rattled in his second trey of the half. Nevada closed out the surge with 3s from Stephens and Drew.
“I called isolation plays three times for him (Drew),” Musselman said. “You aren’t supposed to take a 3 (on a called isolation). Luckily for him he made it. He continues to get better. When Lindsey Drew is in double figures we’re (even more) dangerous.
“We wanted to get off to a better start than in past games. We felt like we didn’t play up to our potential last game (at Air Force). We played great in some stretches (and) didn’t play great in others. We talked about the importance of playing for 40 minutes and not messing around with game and being focused.”
The first half left USU coach Tim Duryea steamed.
A flat start, no resistance defensively,” he said. “Just not in the mindset to compete and to compete as hard as you have to compete to play here. This really comes down to that.
“If you don’t play hard enough and have a mindset to compete, battle, set your jaw, dig your feet in and make a stand… We did not start the game that way. We made a little run there and got within five points, then just, again, showed no willingness to compete.”
Duryea admitted that the team appeared flat entering the game.
“We were very flat, really, yesterday and today,” he said. “I was hoping I was wrong, but thought we were flat and we were. They’re different to play against because of the way they guard you.
The second half proved to be anti-climatic. The Pack’s shooting tailed off, but fortunately the defensive intensity did not.
Musselman admitted it’s difficult to play with a huge lead. Nevada, despite going just 9-for-30 from the field, did outscore the Aggies, 33-31, over the final 20 minutes.
“Felt good,” Stephens said. “We needed a statement. Felt good to put a lot of things together.
“Had a couple of close wins (in going 4-0). People look at it and say fluke wins. Important to have statement win like this.”