The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team has said all season long that they can’t afford another loss at home.
On Saturday afternoon they finally meant what they said.
The Wolf Pack, losers of three of its last four games at home, outscored the Air Force Falcons 15-3 in the final two minutes to earn a hard-fought 74-69 Mountain West victory in front of a crowd of 6,673 at Lawlor Events Center.
“It’s hard to get a win in this league,” said Nevada coach David Carter, whose Wolf Pack improved to 12-11 overall and 3-6 in the Mountain West. “Even when you win you sweat.”
The Wolf Pack was doing a lot of perspiring, down 66-59 with just over two minutes to play.
“This time was different,” Pack point guard Deonte Burton said. “We just huddled up, talked to one another and told each other that we were going to fight back.”
Burton did most of the fighting to get the Pack back in the game.
The junior completed a three-point play to slice Air Force’s lead to 66-62 with 2:16 to go and his acrobatic shot off the glass from the right side of the lane cut it to 66-64 with 1:41 left.
“My team wanted to me to be aggressive,” Burton said. “The coaches told me to be aggressive.”
Burton did what he was told, driving the right side of the lane once more for a lay-up to cut the Falcons lead to just 67-66 with 1:05 to play.
His teammates then did their part.
Freshman Marqueze Coleman stole the ball from the Falcons’ Michael Lyons near mid-court and drove to the basket for a lay-up and his only field goal of the game. Coleman then completed the game-turning 3-point play with a free throw after Lyons’ foul to give the Pack a 69-67 lead with 31 seconds to play.
“He needed it and I needed to see it from him,” smiled Burton, of his freshman understudy at point guard. “I’ve always just told him, ‘Just keep playing, it will come.’ He’s young and inexperienced but all he needs to do is keep playing.”
“That was huge,” said Carter of Coleman’s 3-point play. “It all goes back to being patient on defense, guarding the ball and then completing the play.”
Patience on defense is what earned the Pack the crucial victory. Air Force had just one field goal in the final 2:32 on an uncontested lay-up by Todd Fletcher with six seconds to go.
“We just had a fire about us on the defensive end,” Burton said.
“Defense was the key part to this,” senior Malik Story said.
Air Force shot 49 percent for the game (25-of-51) but the Falcons were just 1-for-4 in the final 2:32. They also turned the ball over twice during that stretch and 16 times for the game.
“We knew that Air Force, especially when they were ahead, were going to run their sets,” Carter said. “I just told the guys, ’Don’t panic. Be patient and just keep guarding.’ I knew we’d get our chances. Air Force relies on jump shots. The main thing is I just didn’t want our guys to think the game was over.”
Five free throws — two by Burton and Story and one by Coleman — put the game away in the final 19 seconds. Air Force, which had won five of its last six, fell to 14-8, 5-4.
“The guys just didn’t want to lose,” Carter said.
Burton and Story put the Pack on their backs in the second half. The two team leaders had just four points combined (all by Burton) at halftime as Air Force took a 27-26 lead at the break. In the second half, though, Story and Burton combined for 34 points (18 by Burton).
Burton finished with a game-high 22 points and Story, despite shooting 2-of-11 on threes, finished with 16. He was 0-for-8 from the field (0-for-6 on threes) in the first half and finished 4-of-15 overall.
“I just had to keep shooting,” said Story, who had just three points in the Pack’s 78-65 loss at Air Force on Jan. 9. “I would let my team down if I stopped shooting. I was getting good looks. I just wasn’t hitting them. But I knew I’d get those same looks in the second half.”
Story’s first 3-pointer of the game gave the Pack a 31-29 lead two minutes into the second half. His second one, the one on which he broke Marcelus Kemp’s school record of 227 threes, cut Air Force’s lead to 64-59 with 3:15 left.
“He was getting good looks,” said Carter of Story’s shooting woes in the first half. “He was wide open on a couple of them. He just wasn’t making them. But he’s going to keep shooting.”
The Wolf Pack also received a much-needed career outing from forward Kevin Panzer. The 6-foot-9 junior had his first career double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds in 29 minutes.
“It’s a big deal for me to play the five (center),” Panzer said. “I need to stay in the paint instead of floating out.”
Panzer was 5-of-6 from the field. He also had a key rebound after a missed Air Force lay-up with 12 seconds to play.
“We told him, ‘You have to stay in position to score,’” Carter said. “He needs to stay there so he can take advantage of the passes he gets instead of floating out to the perimeter for threes.
“He played very well. Now he has to build on that.”
Carter was actually speaking for his entire team with that last statement.
“ If we would have lost this game, it would have been very difficult to go to Wyoming and play well,” said Carter of the Pack’s next game on Wednesday night (6 p.m.) “But since we won, we feel good and we’ll go there with confidence. But now we have to build on that. Hopefully, we will.”