By Kweku Turkson
Las Vegas -- The top-seeded Nevada Wolf Pack came out smoking in the first half, and then used some very timely offensive rebounding to hold off the second-seeded Colorado State Rams, 79-71, in the championship game of the 2017 Mountain West Conference Tournament.
Coach Eric Musselman’s Wolf Pack was led by Jordan Caroline, who did yeoman’s work all afternoon in recording a 23-point, 10-rebound double-double.
The Rams spotted the Wolf Pack a sizable lead in the first half, and despite the best efforts of guards Gian Clavell and Prentiss Nixon, Colorado State couldn’t muster enough big plays, or shots, to overcome the double-digit deficit they were faced with in the first half.
“[We] proved who the best team was this year, in the Mountain West," said Musselman. "We’re the champions.”
Clavell, the reigning Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, poured in 30 points despite shooting an abysmal 3-for-12 from long range, while Nixon connected on six treys in recording 23 points.
Nevada was able to overcome a dismal 4-for-13 shooting performance by top performer Marcus Marshall, who still netted 21 points.
Despite a terrible performance from the field in the first half, the Rams did seize some semblance of momentum right before halftime, as J.D. Page made a desperation half-court heave right as the buzzer sounded, slicing the Nevada lead down to 12, at 44-32 .
Jordan Caroline was a big matchup problem for the Rams in that first half, scoring 16 points and shooting 7-for-8 from the field. As has been the case for much of the year, the Rams were led by Clavell, who contributed 17 points on 14 shots from the field in the game's first 20 minutes.
By the time the second half was three minutes old, Clavell showed he was just getting started, picking up four more points when he knocked down a pair of tough shots in the lane.
While Nevada was still looking to get some breathing room, Clavell would continue to work his magic, draining an improbable crossover-hesitation-spin move-double clutch-scoop layup in traffic, to cut the Nevada lead to 5.
“We knew they were going to make runs, they’re a great team," said Caroline. "Clavell and the other (players), they’re all extremely talented, we just needed to withstand it and keep pushing.”
It was far from just a one man show for the Rams, as they rode some very hot shooting from Nixon to even things up with about 11 minutes to go in the game. A few moments later however, it was junior forward Josh Hall who seized the coveted momentum back for his team, as he converted a three-point play.
Perhaps seeking to light a fire under his team during a critical juncture of the game, Rams head coach Larry Eustachy picked up a technical foul after berating the game officials. The game continued to be a seesaw affair, with Nevada clinging to a four-point lead until Page knocked down an uncontested corner three, slicing the Wolf Pack’s lead to just one at 66-65.
Moments later, big man Cameron Oliver muscled his way down low for his thirteenth rebound and a putback layup to make it 68-65. Despite their best efforts, the Rams weren’t able to consistently sink enough shots to put together a sustained run.
Nevada, winners of ten straight games, can now look forward to playing in the Big Dance.
“You’re supposed to peak at the end," said Musselman. "We’re ready to go to this tournament. We’re not just going to be a part of it, we want to go and win some games.”