LAS VEGAS — For 20 minutes, the Nevada offense was stuck in the mud; spinning its wheels.
Then it started to rain 3s, and all was right with the world.
The 22nd-ranked Wolf Pack opened the second half by making nine of its first 11 shots, including five 3-pointers, and wiped out a 12-point deficit en route to a 79-74 win over in-state rival UNLV in the Mountain West quarterfinals Thursday afternoon at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The win sends Nevada, 27-6, into the semifinals against San Diego State, 20-10. The Aztecs beat Fresno State, 64-42. The teams split the season series, each winning on its home floor.
“I thought defensively we were pretty good the whole game,” Nevada coach Eric Musselman said. “Offensively in the first half the ball stuck. We didn’t move it like we had all year.
“We were frustrated because shots weren’t going. They had their full quarter, three quarter court, 2-2-1, kind of a soft trap. Tried to take time off the clock and slow you down a little bit. I thought Marvin (Menzies) did a great job of coming up with something different (from the last time we played).”
And, besides shooting only 29 percent in the first half, the Pack played without Caleb Martin for 7-plus minutes and Jordan Caroline for 5-plus minutes after each picked up their second fouls.
And, to make matters worse Jovan Mooring scored 13 points on four field goals, and seemed on his way to another huge game against the Pack.
Threes by Mooring and Tervell Beck gave UNLV a 39-31 led at the half, and the Rebels increased the lead to 43-31 in the first 50 seconds of the second half on a jump shot by Beck and two free throws by Brandon McCoy.
The deficit was the same that Nevada had against Fresno State in last year’s semifinals. No problem, according to Kendall Stephens and Caroline.
“It was funny, when we were down I was just thinking about the Fresno game last year, where we had to come out with a lot of energy to be able to win it,” Caroline said. “And I think that’s what we did. So I felt it was reminiscent of the Fresno game last year.”
“We kind of just got out of our game,” Stephens said. “Once we got back comfortable, shots started to drop, we didn’t foul as much. We started to get our identity back and it was good.”
That’s when Nevada went on one of its famed scoring surges over the next 5-plus minutes to take control of the game. And, it was the aforementioned 3-point shooting that keyed the outburst.
Caroline started the barrage with a 3-pointer, and after a UNLV turnover, Kendall Stephens (15 points) dropped in another 3-pointer. After two empty possessions by each team, Stephens drained another 3-ball to make it 45-40. After UNLV went 0-for-2 on the next possession, Hallice Cooke drained a right-corner 3 to make it 45-43 with 16:55 left.
Kris Clyburn scored on a layup, but Nevada went on a 8-2 run, six of the points by Caroline (21 points, 10 rebounds) for a 51-49 Pack lead. UNLV never regained the lead.
Musselman said the Pack made a couple of on-the-fly adjustments to better attack the UNLV defense. That helped the Pack shoot 68 percent in the second half.
The Rebels did close to 59-57 on field goals by Clyburn, Jordan Johnson and Shakur Juiston. Nevada put together a 9-2 run to get to 68-59 with 5:46 left thanks to two buckets by Josh Hall (16 points off the bench).
UNLV did close to 77-74 with 48 seconds left on two free throws and a jump shot by Shakur. One of the free throws came after Cooke was hit with a technical foul, and Johnson converted. Beck was fouled on the ensuing inbound play, and he made one shot.
Caleb Martin (12 points) opened the door when he missed the front end of a bonus situation, but UNLV was unable to tie the game when Mooring, under heavy pressure from Cody Martin, was off the mark with a potential game-tying shot.
“I think every game this year except maybe TCU is the only game we didn’t have a scoring spurt,” Musselman said. “Our runs have not been the 10-2 runs. They haven’t been that way this year. We’ve had like 15-4 runs and 19-6 runs. And, it’s because we shoot so many 3s and space the floor out.
“They (the team) kept telling me I was the one panicked. I think they’re a confident group, and you can’t be a ranked team for five straight weeks if you’re not a really confident team.”
And, let’s not forget about Cody Martin. After Mooring went 4-for-6 in the first half, Martin took over on the UNLV senior. Mooring went 0-for-7, finishing 4-for-13 on the day.
“We wanted to try to get Mooring to shoot over an extended hand of a 6-7 player,” Musselman said. “There is a reason Cody is Defensive Player of the Year. He understands spacing and he’s really smart, I think he forced Mooring into some difficult shots.”