The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team entered Friday evening barely treading .500 with losses in three of their last five; though the trio of losses coming to nationally-ranked Kansas, along with stingy Mountain West conference foes in Boise State and Wyoming. But head coach Steve Alford still challenged his team to be tougher and play more consistently promising basketball for a full 40 minutes, which has been an on again, off again switch throughout the first 15 games of the season.
In the midst of arguably the toughest part of the schedule with Colorado State and Utah State looming in the wind next week, it was near-imperative they walked away with a victory over one of the best teams in the Mountain West before the season potentially spirled in the wrong direction.
For the most part, all of the above were accomplished on Friday.
Nevada fended off the Fresno State Bulldogs for the 77-73 victory at Lawlor Events Center in Reno, Nev. It was Nevada’s first Quad 1 or 2 victory and its first win against a then-KenPom top-75 opponent.
“I’m very happy for the guys,” Alford said after the game. “It’s been a long three days for them trying to figure some things out. They were soul-searching ... I thought what we got tonight was the passion, energy, enthusiam ... I thought we played with that joyfullness that we just have to play (with). Our teams always do that. We haven’t had that.”
The Wolf Pack, who had eight different players score, trailed or tied for all but 14 seconds of the first half, though it kept the game competitive with the “toughness” Alford’s ever-so seeked after its last couple of losses.
Tied at 47 with over 13 minutes remaining, they caught wind and exploded a 12-0 run — which ultimately was the difference in the game — over a 2:06 span in the second half to give them a resounding 12-point lead.
But Fresno State wouldn’t go away. The Bulldogs slowly chipped away — assisted by Nevada’s inability to make free throws, missing nine (on 16 attempts) in the final 10 minutes — while knocking down eight of their 15 shots with five triples over that span.
Isaiah Hill’s four-point play evidently cut the deficit to three with 19.9 seconds to go. But Nevada’s Tre Coleman split a pair of free-throw attempts followed by three combined missed 3s from Fresno’s Deon Stroud and Orlando Robinson to close out the four-point win.
“With the lead we had, it should not have been a four-point win,” Alford said. “We should’ve put it away and we’ve got to work on that. The practices will help with that. Overall, I thought this was a really good win for us.”
Nevertheless, Alford was appreciative at how his group responded to the adversity compared to its most recent loss against Wyoming.
“When adversity hit us against Wyoming, we weren’t very tough mentally. We splintered and went in the opposite direction,” he said. “Tonight, we missed a bucket load of free throws in the second half. We were 10-for-21 (from the free-throw line) in the second half. That can disrupt your offense, but it also just messes with you.
“Adversity hit us inside seven minutes, and though we weren’t perfect, we didn’t break. And the timeouts were great — the way our guys talked, our body language — everything was so much better. To me, when adversity hit against Wyoming, we looked defeated before the game was ever over. Tonight, when adversity hit, we didn’t look defeated. We didn’t act defeated.”
Though it missed a season-high 15 free throws (14-29), Nevada still shot 56.0 percent, including 38.9 percent from distance, its best 3-point percentage against a Division-I opponent since it shot a season-best 46.4 percent against Santa Clara on Nov. 16, 2021.
Grant Sherfield recorded a team-high 17 points, going 6-for-14 and 3-for-7 from distance, in addition to his five rebounds, seven assists and one steal. Kenan Blackshear had his Wolf Pack career high, totaling 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting with five rebounds and a pair steals.
Will Baker added 14 points on a near-perfect 6-of-7 shooting. Two other players — Desmond Cambridge and Warren Washington — had nine points apiece.
The Wolf Pack became the second team all season to score 70 or more points against the Bulldogs (yes, even with 15 missed free throws). The other being San Francisco, who scored 71 in a 71-63 win on Dec. 8.
Fresno State shot 43.6 percent with a 40.0 3-point percentage.
Orlando Robinson, a projected second-round pick for the upcoming 2022 NBA Draft, tallied a game-high 26 points on 9-of-18 shooting with 12 rebounds — his sixth double-double of the season and the 22nd of his career.
Isaiah Hill recorded a season-high 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including 5-of-8 from distance after entering Friday with a 30.3 3-point percentage. Jordan Campbell added 10 points with two triples (on three attempts).
The trio combined for 79.5 percent of the Bulldogs’ scoring production.
The Wolf Pack fared well inside the painted area against the shot-blocking Robinson (who didn’t record a block), accumulating 34 points to Fresno State’s 22.
“Beating them 34 to 22 (inside the paint) is good,” Alford said. “We haven’t been doing that; it’s been the flip of that ... We moved the ball offensively so much better today so we hit our offensive efficiency against arguably one of the better defensive teams that we’ve played.”
The Wolf Pack move to 9-7 and 3-2 in Mountain West play. Fresno State drops to 3-2 in conference affairs and 13-5 overall.
Hill scored seven of Fresno’s first 13 points and his 3-pointer rewarded the Bulldogs the early 13-7 lead. Back-to-back Robinson triples widened it to nine with 14:09 left in the opening half.
Washington’s layup followed by Sherfield’s jumper cut it to 25-24 with 5:42 left in the opening half. Robinson’s fadeaway jumper put Fresno State ahead by five with under a minute to go in the half, giving him 16 points.
Sherfield’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer cut the Bulldog lead to 37-36 heading into halftime.
Nevada shot 65.2 percent, though six of their eight misses came from 3-point range, where they were just 2-of-8 (25.0 percent). It recorded 20 of its 36 points in the paint.
Fresno State canned 46.2 percent of its shots, including 41.7 percent from beyond the arc and 8-of-9 from the free-throw line. Robinson, Hill and Campbell combined for 33 of its 37 points.
Baker, who had the Pack’s first seven points exiting halftime, gave Nevada the 43-40 lead to force a Fresno State timeout. Back-to-back steal-and-scores from the Cambridge followed by Sherfield’s 3-pointer capped a 12-0 Wolf Pack run to make it 59-47 with 11:06 to go.
Hill’s triple made it 67-59 with under five minutes remaining. His four-point play cut the deficit to three with 19.9 to go, but the Pack were able to wall off the Bulldogs in the waning moments en-route to the critical four-point win over their conference foe.
Next up: Nevada hits the road for one game against the Colorado State Rams on Tuesday, Jan. 25 at 6:00 p.m. PT.