Pack takes down WAC-leading Utah State
RENO ” The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team seems to be like the Northern Nevada weather this season. If you don’t like what you see, just wait a day or two because it will change.
How else do you explain the Wolf Pack whipping the Western Athletic Conference first-place Utah State Aggies, 84-71, Saturday night at Lawlor Events Center just 48 hours after losing to the last-place Fresno State Bulldogs?
“I just think that is a sign of the balance of the league,” Wolf Pack coach Mark Fox said. “No doubt.”
It might also be a sign of good things to come for the Wolf Pack. The Pack, now 17-11 overall, continues to cling to second place in the WAC at 9-5. Utah State, which clinched the WAC regular-season title last week, is now 26-4, 13-2.
“I’m pleased with the way we responded to adversity,” said Fox, referring to the 68-66 loss at Fresno on Thursday. “That is the way I wanted them to respond.”
The loudest response came from sophomore point guard Armon Johnson. Johnson, who missed 10 of his 14 shots against Fresno State, came back against Utah State and scored a game-high 28 on 11-of-18 shooting.
“That last game I had trouble shooting the ball and it really bothered me since we lost,” Johnson said. “So I came out early (in the pre-game warm-ups) and worked on my shot.”
Johnson, who scored 14 points in each half, hit two early 3-pointers to give the Pack a 12-6 lead just four minutes into the game. He hit a fade away jumper for a 26-12 lead and had a lay-up off a steal by Malik Cooke for a 39-18 lead. In the second half he helped put the game away, scoring eight points in the final five minutes to hold off the Aggies.
“Tonight we saw how we could play when we’re all together as a team,” Johnson said.
The 28 points are a career high for Johnson in a Lawlor Events Center game. He set his career high earlier this season with 33 points at Cal-Berkeley on Dec. 20.
“Armon played well,” Fox said. “He’s gotten better and better. He shot well and he played a complete game.”
Luke Babbitt added 21 points for the Pack and set the school’s scoring record for a freshman, passing Edgar Jones. Babbitt now has 459 points, two more than Jones scored in the 1975-76 season.
“That’s cool,” said Babbitt, who entered the game as the fifth-highest scoring freshman in the nation at 16.2 points a game. “Edgar Jones was a great player. But the most important thing is we got the win.”
“When Luke came here he wanted to wear No. 32 (his number at Galena High),” Fox said. “I didn’t know how to tell him he couldn’t have that number because a great player, Edgar Jones, had that number and it is retired. So he combined the two numbers to get number 5. Luke’s had a great freshman year and he’s getting better and better.”
Speaking of combinations, it was the Babbitt-Johnson combo that set the tone early against Utah State, scoring all 14 of the Pack’s points in the first six minutes. Babbitt also hit a 3-pointer for a 29-14 lead with just under nine minutes to go in the first half and converted a three-point play for a 47-30 lead with 34 seconds to go in the half.
The Pack’s big early lead (41-18 with just over four minutes to play in the first half) was the key to the game, Utah State coach Stew Morrill said.
“We came out a little flat,” Morrill said. “I don’t have a reason for that but mostly it was (Nevada’s) level of play. I’ve been here (at Lawlor) enough times to know what we were in for. I tried to tell our guys but we didn’t quite get it.
“We weren’t as ready as we needed to be but, boy, did they make shots and make plays.”
The Wolf Pack shot 50 percent (15-of-30) in the first half and were even better in the second half (11-of-21) to finish at 51 percent for the night. The Pack had made at least half its shots just twice before this season, making 31-of-58 (53 percent) against Sonoma State on Dec. 9 and 30-of-58 (52 percent) against Colorado State on Dec. 2.
Fox, though, was more impressed with the way his team managed the game and continued to respond to the Aggies, never allowing the lead to shrink smaller than seven (69-62 with 5:45 to go).
“A sign of maturity is when we got the 10-point lead early and we continued to make it bigger,” Fox said. “We still played well after we got the lead. That, to me, is a sign of progress.”
A lay-up by Johnson gave the Pack a 73-62 lead with five minutes to go. Joey Shaw scored inside off a crucial offensive rebound for a 75-64 lead and Johnson drilled consecutive jumpers for a 79-67 lead with three minutes to go.
“At one timeout I told them, ‘We knew they were going to make a run,'” said Fox of Utah State. “‘Well, here it is so let’s grow up and answer it.’ And they did.”