Pack moves on in WAC tourney
By Darrell Moody
LAS CRUCES, N.M. – Tournament play isn’t about pretty as much as it is about advancing.
Nevada built a 12-point first half lead thanks to a solid defensive effort and the scoring of JaVale McGee, but then had to hold off a spirited Fresno State rally in the second half to post a 64-57 victory in the WAC quarterfinals Thursday night at The Pan American Center.
Nevada improved to 21-10 overall and earned the right to play host New Mexico State tonight at 7:30 in the semifinals. Nevada swept the season series with the talented Aggies.
It certainly wasn’t a pretty win. Nevada struggled offensively with twice as many turnovers as assists (13-6), shot a very ordinary 42 percent, shot poorly from 3-point range (3 for 15) and watched Marcelus Kemp go scoreless in the first half before he rebounded with 11 second-half points.
“It was a hard-fought victory for us,” Nevada coach Mark Fox said. “Fresno State came out in the second half as the aggressor. We did a good job in the first half of building a lead. They whittled it down like a good team will. We hung on and showed poise (at the end).
“I was pleased with the first half, not so much with the second. We were lucky we played well in the first half.”
Nevada held Fresno State to a 26 percent effort from the field and used an 18-3 run to build a 31-19 lead after 20 minutes. Much of the damage was done by the reserves.
Matt LaGrone and Malik Cooke scored four points apiece in the first half, while David Ellis and Lyndale Burleson scored two apiece to go along with 11 by McGee.
“Lyndale gave us a lift,” Fox said. “Ellis gave us key minutes and key possessions. Cooke was real critical for us and made key baskets. The bench played a big part in the win.”
Fresno State led 12-7 5 1/2 minutes into the game, but Nevada scored 13 straight and 18 of the next 21 to take a 25-15 lead with 7:26 left.
Ellis scored on a hook and then Fresno State misfired on its next three possessions, and Nevada cashed in each time, twice on layups by Cooke and once on a lay- by Armon Johnson for a 15-12 lead.
The Bulldogs took a time-out, but that didn’t slow down the Pack.
McGee, who finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds, drained a 3-pointer and dunk, and LaGrone’s two layups keyed a 10-3 run to give Nevada the aforementioned 10-point lead.
“I’m trying to do what’s best for he team, whether I score or not,” McGee said. “I just want to make sure we win.”
“He’s longer than whoever he plays,” Kemp said. “I’m glad to play with him. He had a great night.”
That halftime lead was huge considering Kemp went scoreless and Demarshay Johnson played only four minutes after picking up two quick fouls.
“There were a lot of red jerseys around me whenever I got the ball,” Kemp said. “I was trying to pass it out and stay within the offense. They did a good job.”
“Marcelus didn’t take a bad shot in the first half,” Fox said. “He was patient and let the game come to him.”
Kemp had scored 53 points in the two previous meetings between the teams.
“We’ve had a hard time guarding Kemp all year, and our guards did a good job against him tonight,” Fresno State coach Steve Cleveland said. “We tried to deny him the ball as much as possible.”
The teams traded baskets for the first five minutes of the second half, but the Bulldogs, behind the scoring of Kevin Bell, outscored Nevada 19-10 over the next 5 minutes 41 seconds to trim the lead to 49-46 with 9:26 left. Bell had eight of his 11 in that stretch.
Nevada rebounded with an 11-5 run to stretch the lead to nine, 60-51, with 2:35 remaining.
Both Kemp and Demarshay Johnson were right in the middle of that surge. Johnson had a putback and two free throws. Kemp had a three-point play that gave Nevada a seven-point edge and his last bucket of the night made it a nine-point game.
“We competed as well as we have this year against Nevada,” Cleveland said. “We put ourselves in a position to get back in the game (in the second half). Our guys showed a lot of heart tonight. The glaring thing is that we didn’t hit our shots.”
Nevada didn’t hit a ton of shots as it 42 percent mark would suggest, but it made enough.
“We grinded it out,” Kemp said. “We made key shots, had key rebounds and got the win.”
And moved on.