RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack is heading to the Mountain West men’s basketball tournament with a huge chip on its shoulder.
“You have to be mad about something to play the game of basketball,” Wolf Pack freshman Cameron Oliver said after a 71-66 loss to the New Mexico Lobos on Saturday in front of a Senior Night crowd of 7,191 at Lawlor Events Center. “You have to play with a certain type of rage.”
The Wolf Pack’s anger comes from two league losses to the Lobos this season. The second loss on Saturday in the regular season finale for both teams gave the Lobos the fourth seed in the conference tournament in Las Vegas this week and dropped the Wolf Pack to the fifth seed. The two teams will now meet again on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. in Las Vegas.
“We’re not going to lose three games in a row to them,” Oliver said. “That’s not going to happen to us. That would be kind of embarrassing. On Thursday you are going to see a fight.”
The Wolf Pack, which was without senior point guard Marqueze Coleman for the third consecutive game because of an ankle injury, put up a fight on Saturday but it happened a bit too late. The Lobos led 41-28 at halftime, 58-38 midway through the second half and 65-48 with just 5:15 to play before the Wolf Pack started punching back.
“It took for us to get down by 20 for us to wake up,” said guard Tyron Criswell, the only senior to play on Senior Night. The other seniors, Coleman and Lucas Stivrins, are out with injuries.
“It came down to heart,” said Oliver of the final five minutes when the Wolf Pack outscored the Lobos 18-6. “We reacted late but that showed we’re not going to give up. We’re not a quitter.”
It was a dunk by Oliver that got the Pack rolling in the final five minutes. D.J. Fenner also drained a 3-pointer to slice the Lobos lead to 70-63 with 1:18 to go and Eric Cooper connected from long distance to pull the Pack to within 71-66 with 43 seconds to go. New Mexico then started to unravel, throwing the ball away with 31 seconds to go. Cooper, though, missed a mid-range jumper with 21 seconds to go and a 3-pointer with seven seconds left as the Pack comeback fell short.
Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman didn’t want to talk about any failed comebacks after the game.
“They played better than us both times we played them this year,” said Musselman, whose Wolf Pack (18-12) lost at New Mexico 88-76 on Dec. 30 to open the Mountain West season. “They were tougher. They cut harder. We’ve played 80 minutes against them this year and they’ve been the much better team. And it’s not even close.”
The Wolf Pack was the better team for the first six minutes of the game, building a 14-8 lead as Oliver had a 3-pointer and a dunk. The 6-foot-8 freshman also broke free for a dunk and a 16-11 lead with 12:22 to go in the opening half. New Mexico, though, dominated the final nine minutes of the half. A 17-3 run broke a 19-19 tie and gave the Lobos a 36-22 lead with 4:47 to go in the half. Cullen Neal had two 3-pointers to spark the game-changing run.
“They punched us in the mouth first,” said Criswell, who scored a game-high 20 points.
Musselman after the game quickly pointed to the Wolf Pack’s 22 percent (5-of-23) success rate on 3-pointers. The Pack was 1-of-10 in the first half and 4-of-13 in the second half but all four of those 3-pointers came in the final nine minutes after New Mexico had taken a 59-40 lead.
“Our shooting is absolutely painful to watch,” Musselman said. “I’m certainly not asking them to take that many threes. I already know the result when it leaves their hands.”
The Wolf Pack shot 37 percent (25-of-68) from the floor overall.
“One of out eight games we knock down some threes,” Musselman said.
“When teams zone us like they did they kind of bait us into taking what’s open and the three is open,” Criswell said. “Instead we should attack the basket.”
New Mexico also enjoyed a 44-30 advantage on the boards and had 18 second chance points to the Pack’s six. Lobos center Obij Ajet, a 7-foot-1 junior, had 14 boards and 12 points. Elijah Brown, a 6-4 sophomore, had 17 points and eight rebounds while Sam Logwood, a 6-7 sophomore, had six points and seven boards. D.J. Fenner (17 points) led the Pack with seven rebounds while Oliver had 13 points and six rebounds.
“We have no answer for them inside,” Musselman said. “We have no answer for them on the backboards.”
“We need everyone on the Nevada Wolf Pack to rebound,” Oliver said.
The Wolf Pack, which lost at Boise State 76-57 on Wednesday and will take only its second two-game losing streak of the season to Las Vegas, also needs to find someone to run the offense if Coleman isn’t able to play on Thursday.
“I have zero hope that he can play,” Musselman said. “He cannot even jog right now.”
“I think he’ll play,” Criswell said.
The last time the Wolf Pack lost to the same team three times in one season was in 2012-13 when Nevada lost two regular season games to Wyoming and then lost to the Cowboys in the Mountain West tournament.
“We can’t lose three in a row to them,” Criswell said. “That would mean we have no pride. We have to go down there and show some pride.”