Wolf Pack advances to WAC semifinals
The Associated Press
RENO (AP) ” Nevada turned the ball over 15 times and was outrebounded 33-31 by San Jose State. But freshman Luke Babbitt came through with a career-high 30 points to help the Wolf Pack avoid an early first-round exit from the Western Athletic Conference tournament.
Babbitt scored 11 of his points in the first five minutes of the second half and Malik Cooke added 16 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots as second-seeded Nevada beat the seventh-seeded Spartans 78-69 in the quarterfinals Thursday night.
“It was a hard-fought game. We had to battle,” Nevada coach Mark Fox said. “I didn’t think it was a thing of beauty but we accomplished what we wanted to.”
“I could sense all day that we were feeling the pressure of hosting the tournament. And I didn’t coach well. Our players bailed me out.”
Armon Johnson added 14 points and five rebounds for the Wolf Pack (20-11), who posted their sixth consecutive 20-win season. They advance to Friday night’s semifinal against the winner of Thursday night’s quarterfinal between third-seeded Idaho and sixth-seeded Louisiana Tech.
DeShawn Wright scored a career-high 22 points, C.J. Webster 14 and Adrian Oliver 12 for San Jose State (13-17), which lost both regular season matchups with the Wolf Pack 89-66 and 80-68.
“We believed that we can win. Nevada was just better than us tonight,” San Jose State coach George Nessman said. “They’ve kicked our butts twice. I’m sure they were pretty confident coming into the game.”
Babbitt made 12 of 13 free throws and shot 8-for-14 from the field. His previous career high was 24 points at Idaho on Jan. 31.
“My teammates did a nice job of finding me when I was open,” said Babbitt, who is Nevada’s all-time freshman scoring leader with 522 points. He entered the night ranked fourth in the nation among freshmen with a scoring average of 16.4 points per game.
“San Jose State is a very physical team. I need to do a better job of dealing with that. But we were able to get the job done,” he said. “It’s good knowing we didn’t play well and still won the game. That’s a good sign.”
Babbitt’s explosive start to the second half turned Nevada’s 37-31 halftime lead into a 50-41 advantage with 14:48 left in the game.
San Jose State put together an 8-0 run, including 3-pointers by Tim Pierce and Oliver and a 20-foot baseline jumper by Wright to cut it to 50-49 with 11:30 remaining.
But Cooke followed a 15-footer with a 3-point goal and Johnson added another three to put Nevada ahead 58-49. Babbitt made consecutive 3-pointers to give the Wolf Pack their biggest lead, 68-55 with 3:31 to go.
Wright followed a pair of free throws with a layup to pull the Spartans to within 73-65 with 58 seconds on the clock but they could get no closer.
Nevada took an early 14-9 lead on Joey Shaw’s 3-pointer. But San Jose State followed with an 8-0 run, including back-to-back baskets inside by Oliver to take a 17-14 lead 11:45 before the half.
Babbitt scored six points on a 15-6 run that included Johnson’s spinning drive to the hoop in traffic, Malik Cooke’s 3-pointer and Babbitt’s offensive rebound for a bucket that put the Wolf Pack up 33-27 4:18 before the half and they never trailed after that.
Nevada won the WAC tourney in 2006 and 2004 and before this season had won or shared the regular season title five years in a row.
Top-seeded Utah State (28-4), the regular season WAC title holder this season, beat ninth-seeded Fresno State 85-68 Thursday night to advance to Friday’s other semifinal against fifth-seeded New Mexico State (17-14), which beat fourth-seeded Boise State 80-70 in the other quarterfinal.