Fabulous Mountain West tournament play continued into the quarterfinals where 40 minutes of regulation wasn’t enough between fifth-seed San Jose State (20-12, 11-8 MW) and fourth-seed Nevada (22-10, 12-7 MW).
Behind the Spartans’ second overtime conference tournament game in two years under head coach Tim Miles, there were numerous factors behind the 81-77 win over Nevada besides the obvious.
In a historic season, including 20 wins and Mountain West player and coach of the year in Omari Moore and Tim Miles, respectively, the Spartans’ last four-games have shown extraordinarily solid, stout defense over teams like Boise State, Colorado State, Air Force and now, Nevada.
“I bet we played our best defensive games of the year in that stretch and it’s a good time for that,” said Miles on the main reason for the end-of-year surge. “Because we’re not playing that great on offense, but the kids are bought in on this and they understand what they need to do and they’re taking pride in the little things needed to win.”
Behind those little things needed to win is Moore. Though struggling in the first-half with only four points, Moore’s six assists and constant dribble penetration in the first-half had the full attention of the Wolf Pack.
“Stuff was not falling for me at all,” said Moore. “But my coaches kept telling me, ‘Keep going! Keep going!’ and I kept being aggressive.”
Moore’s relentlessness found 22 points in the second-half; finishing with 26 for the game; countering the 20-point onslaught from the Mountain West newcomer of the year in Nevada’s Jarod Lucas.
Lucas finished with a game-leading 28-points, where his beyond-NBA-range 3s led the Pack’s counterattack with 13 minutes left. The Spartans could not stop Lucas until Moore was assigned to take him (little thing number one).
Moore dutifully stopped Lucas and stopped Nevada’s momentum cold; holding the Pack scoreless for a three-minute stretch late in the second-half.
“We have a lot of guys really helping us out, who push us in practices,” said Moore on more of the behind-the-scene components. “Then you have new guys like Robert (Viahola) and Sage Tolbert who help on the boards and all of them do so much that doesn’t end up on the stat sheets.”
It was Moore’s 10 assists that distributed the spark and energy.
Moore’s instrument of destruction? Sage Tolbert.
Tolbert’s above-the-rim play Thursday showed all the power-and-strength to how potent the Spartans are inside. San Jose State had struggled with wing production in previous games until Tolbert took the reins this time around.
“I kind of felt the pressure and I knew I had to come through, because we needed the production,” said Tolbert who finished with 20 points, six rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
A Tolbert first-half sequence saw a breakaway steal and throw down, two powerful alley-oop dunks and a devastating blocked shot - then another alley-oop two in the second-half leading to a nine-point Spartan lead with 15 minutes left until Nevada started their one big second-half push.
So, what are all those little things that started to gather more Spartan believers?
As frustrating as basketball can be sometimes with its ups-and-downs, the little things are never in the stats and hardly seen on your screen.
It’s things like footwork: seeing forward Trey and Garrett Anderson play hounding defense down low where the Spartan seamlessly flowed back-and-forth from man-to-man and double-teams.
It’s things like positioning; seeing centers Ibrahima Diallo and Viaola worry Nevada so much of the Spartans’ rebounding prowess that even when the Pack out rebounded SJS 42-34, the Spartans outscored Nevada big in the paint 42-26.
It’s watching gutsy sophomore guard Alvaro Cardenas, the smallest on the court on this day, crash the boards, grab rebounds, and impose himself at the basket. Cardenas 14 points provided the rest of the balanced scoring the Spartans needed.
It’s also the incensed passion of Miles and near fear of God intensity he brings to the court, especially when he knows his team was done wrong. Let’s just say Nevada is tops in the league in free throw attempts and free throws made, while San Jose State is at the bottom. The questionable and disparaging 2x difference was on full display. But, one can say it’s just part of the game dynamics.
It’s the superstitions; biggest one from Spartan director of media relations Amy Villa, who wore her championship outfit on Thursday. The same outfit Villa last adorned when another sport she oversees won a championship last year.
The still-peaking Spartans face top-seed San Diego State today at 6:30. The first-place Aztecs are the most balanced team in the conference.