Utah State rallied from 18 points down to get within four in the final minute and throw a scare into Nevada. However, the Wolf Pack held on and pulled out an 85-80 victory over its league rivals.
"They're pretty good. They played awfully well," Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. "We knew what we were up against with how well they've been playing, their talent level. Our team hung in there and battled. I've got no complaints about our effort. We were playing catch up the rest of the way."
The 8,454 fans in at Lawlor Events Center Monday saw Nevada improve to 16-8 overall and 8-3 in WAC play. The Wolf Pack now sits in a three-way tie with Boise State and New Mexico State in the conference standings, just a half game back of Utah State (18-7, 8-2).
Jaycee Carroll dropped in a runner with 16:54 left in the second half that saw Utah State trim Nevada's lead to five, 42-37. Nevada then grabbed the momentum and thought it had run away to hide. The Wolf Pack outscored the Aggies 22-9 over the next five minutes. JaVale McGee's scoop shoot at the 10:17 mark of the half gave Nevada a game-high lead of 18 points, 64-46.
That's probably about the time Nevada players and fans thought the game was in hand. It was anything but.
Carroll dropped a 3-point bomb for Utah State that saw the Aggies cut Nevada's lead in half, pulling the Logan, Utah school within nine, 66-57, with 7:10 remaining to play.
Carroll stayed hot, but Nevada seemed to curb Utah State's spurt. Carroll needed to drain another trey with 3:50 left to keep the margin at nine, 73-64. At that point, Carroll had 24 of Utah State's 34 second-half points.
The Aggies had more left in the comeback tank. Gary Wilkinson caught a bullet pass from Kris Clark on a basket cut and threw down a dunk with 46 seconds still showing on the game clock. That basket saw the Aggies cut the Wolf Pack lead to four, 78-74. That's as close as Utah State had been since late in the first half. It could get no closer.
"I told our kids with I think 11:50 to go, it was after a timeout. 'They are an experienced team. They are going to keep coming. That's what experience teams do,'" Nevada coach Mark Fox said.
Nevada made 7-of-8 free throws down the stretch to close out the game and send Utah State home with a road loss. Nevada had a big advantage at the charity stripe. The Wolf Pack converted 17-of-23 from the line while Utah State was 7-of-10.
"It's a good win. We fought hard, but got the job done. That's the most important thing," Kemp said. "I think we kept our composure. We stayed in the offense. Jaycee and some of their other plays hit some big shots, but we kept our composure and hit some key free throws down the stretch too."
Nevada won the game despite getting out-shot and out-rebounded. Utah State made good on 33-of-64 field-goal attempts compared to Nevada's 30-of-63. The Aggies also won the war on the boards by a 36-33 margin.
In addition to its edge at the foul line, Nevada also helped its cause by turning the ball over just four times in 40 minutes of action. The Wolf Pack also had a season-high 24 assists for the third-straight contest.
"We have really matured offensively. I think we've been able to see that the last couple games ... That was a huge factor tonight," Fox said.
While Carroll helped lead Utah State back into contention in the second half, Nevada's Marcelus Kemp was busy torching the Aggies all night. Kemp poured in a career-high 35 points. He finished 9-of-17 from the field, including 4-of-8 from 3-point land. He also buried 13-of-14 free throws. His big night helped him move into third place on Nevada's all-time scoring list. He passed Alex Boyd and now has 1,757 points, trailing just Edgar Jones and Nick Fazekas.
Nevada took control with just under four minutes remaining in the first half. The Wolf Pack and Aggies traded buckets through the first 16 minutes. Utah State took a 28-27 lead on a putback by Clark with 4:05 to go before halftime.
Demarshay Johnson got a putback of his own on Nevada's ensuing possession to start a string of 11 unanswered Wolf Pack points. Armon Johnson hit a 3-pointer in the corner and a pull-up 10-foot jumper on the baseline to key the spurt. Kemp capped the run by knocking down two foul shots with 38 seconds left before halftime.
The free throws gave Nevada a 38-28 lead. It looked like that would be the halftime score but the visiting Aggies got a 15-foot jumper from Tai Wesley off an in-bound play and went into the locker room trailing by eight.
Utah State hung around in the first half despite by a subpar performance from Carroll, the WAC's preseason player of the year. He was limited to five first-half points on 2-of-7 shooting, largely due to the pressure of Nevada's Lyndale Burleson. That certainly changed after the break as the Evantson, Wyo. native finished with a team-high 29 points on 10-of-18 from the field.
"Jaycee Carroll is a great player. It felt like he made 10 3-pointers," Fox said. "He's a terrific player and representative of his team and our conference. He made a three that we blocked on the way up, so give him credit. He's a great player."
Wesley and Wilkinson chipped in 13 and 12 points for the losing Aggies.
Johnson was a key contributor for Nevada Monday. He scored 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the winning cause and gave away six assists against just one turnover.
"I let the game come to me the whole time. The shots were there and I took advantage of them," Johnson said.
Nevada continues its stretch of five games in 10 days when it hits the hardwood Thursday at Boise State. Tip-off is set for 6:05 p.m. PDT.