Nevada managed just 27 points in a lackluster first half but got it going after the break and posted a 79-69 Western Athletic Conference home victory in front of 7,894 in attendance at Lawlor Events Center.
“We didn’t play particularly well in the first half,” Nevada coach David Carter said. “I think a lot of that is just emotion and Senior Night and the ceremony. We got off to a slow start, but I was very proud of how we responded in the second half.”
The Wolf Pack takes the WAC’s top seed into the conference tournament which starts Thursday at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. Nevada is set to open the tourney against San Jose State Thursday at 6 p.m.
“I feel really confident,” Nevada senior Dario Hunt said. “Obviously, we’re the team to beat so the pressure’s more on the other teams because they have to play us. I respect every opponent but they have to respect us, too. We’re going to come out tough and aggressive, so I’m pretty confident about the way we’re playing.”
Louisiana Tech led by two at halftime, 29-27, and then scored six of the second half’s first eight points to forge ahead 35-29 after a Raheem Appleby layup less than two minutes after halftime.
The guests still led by five, 51-46, after Cordarius Johnson threw down a dunk at the 11:20 mark of the second half.
That’s when Nevada finally seemed to flip the ‘ON’ switch. It ripped off 12 straight points to go back on top, 58-51. Deonte Burton capped the burst with a driving layup that left 8:25 on the game clock.
The Wolf Pack (25-5, 13-1 WAC) did not let up. The 12 unanswered points wound up kickstarting a 25-7 onslaught. Burton drained two foul shots with 4:33 left in the game that concluded the key spurt and left Nevada with a 71-58 advantage.
“I thought Nevada got sharper with its press attack,” Bulldogs coach Mike White said. “They scored some easy baskets on our breakdowns. Fatigue may have been a little bit of a factor. I wish I would have made some more substitutions. And then the crowd became a factor, too. They showed why they are champions.”
Louisiana Tech (16-15, 6-8) did its best to hang around. The Bulldogs, who had won their last four coming into Reno, trimmed the Wolf Pack lead back down to seven, 71-64, after six straight points by Romario Souza. The mini spurt left LTU 3:06 to mount a comeback, but it could get no closer.
Burton was a huge factor in the game. Nevada’s WAC player-of-the-year candidate scored 20 points, 15 in the second half, and dished out seven assists.
Burton played just six minutes in the first half after picking up two quick fouls, one of which was a technical. The Wolf Pack offense responded with its cat-quick NBA prospect on the floor. He did not leave the game in the second half until the final minute of play.
“We had 12 turnovers in the first half and I think part of that was Deonte was out in the first half,” Carter said. “The second part was they did something different. Their 2-2-1 really bothered us with their quickness. We were too timid. We didn’t attack. We have to do a better job in that area. We haven’t been great against the press and we have to improve in that area.”
In spite of its slow start in the first 20 minutes, Nevada dominated the stat sheet, specifically around the rim. The Wolf Pack out-rebounded the Bulldogs 48-21 and outscored them in the paint 46-30.
Nevada shot a stellar 29-of-55 (52.7 percent) from the field, while Louisiana Tech was 26-of-59 (44.1 percent)
Additionally, the Wolf Pack outscored the Bulldogs 15-9 in second-chance points and 18-9 on fast-break points despite having more turnovers, 17-13.
The first half was far from Nevada’s best as it found itself facing the two-point halftime deficit. The Wolf Pack was up 25-18 after Louisiana Tech was called for goaltending on a Dario Hunt hook shot with 3:54 to go before halftime. Unfortunately for Nevada fans, their beloved Wolf Pack managed just one basket through the remainder of the first half.
Louisiana Tech put together an 11-2 spurt in that stretch, which was capped by a Kenneth Smith 3-pointer in the waning seconds before the break.
The visiting Bulldogs led 15-14 after a mid-range jumper by Raheem Appleby with 10:24 showing on the first-half clock. Nevada strung together 11 of the next 14 points, a burst capped by Hunt’s hook that resulted in a goaltending call.
Some of Nevada’s early struggles were due to 12 first-half turnovers while Burton watched from the bench.
In the end, Nevada saw four players finish in double figures in the scoring column. Hunt contributed 16 to the winning cause, while Evans and Story added 13 and 11.
Souza led LTU with 15 points. Trevor Gaskins chipped in 13 points with Johnson and Appleby posting 12 and 10 in defeat.