Marek Warszawski

Forget the regular season; Nevada was the better team when it mattered most

Nevada’s bench reacts after Cameron Oliver (0) was fouled as he sunk a 3-point shot during the second half the Wolf Pack’s 83-72 victory over Fresno State on Friday night in the Mountain West Conference tournament semifinals.
Nevada’s bench reacts after Cameron Oliver (0) was fouled as he sunk a 3-point shot during the second half the Wolf Pack’s 83-72 victory over Fresno State on Friday night in the Mountain West Conference tournament semifinals. The Associated Press

The better team won.

Yes, I realize Fresno State defeated Nevada both times they played during the regular season. No one can alter those facts. But when it mattered most, in March, in the Mountain West Conference men’s basketball tournament semifinals, the Wolf Pack left little doubt.

That verdict didn’t come early. For a while, the Bulldogs badly outplayed the tournament’s No. 1 seed and were 20 minutes away from a return trip to the MW championship game.

Then, in a flash, everything changed. The same Nevada team that shot 23.3 percent before halftime suddenly couldn’t miss. I mean literally couldn’t miss. And the same Fresno State team that scraped together six straight wins using a combination of defense and guile found itself on the business end of a 25-2 Wolf Pack scoring run.

“They made a run, just like any team would, being down,” Fresno State senior forward Paul Watson said. “But you know, we really didn’t bring the intensity that we did in the first half to the second. We weren’t able to sustain the run that they made.”

Which is how the final score ended up 83-72 in Nevada’s favor after the Bulldogs led 32-21 at halftime.

Did you do the math? The Wolf Pack scored 62 points in the second half … on 79.3 percent shooting. Not sure which of those numbers is more impressive coming against a very good Fresno State defense that surrendered 70.2 points per game during the regular season while limiting opponents to 41.3 percent from the field.

“Fresno is a team we really wanted to beat,” Nevada senior Cam Oliver said.

Give the Wolf Pack credit for playing to their potential before you assign the Bulldogs any blame for allowing that to happen.

Fresno State simply isn’t as talented or skilled, nor does it have as many weapons. Just don’t tell that to coach Rodney Terry, who vehemently disagreed when I told him that.

Just as you’d expect he would.

“Are you kidding me?” Terry asked, his voice rising an octave. “We beat them twice – twice. They got us tonight, but we’re better.”

The Bulldogs don’t have a big man as skilled and polished as Oliver. Sure, I love Bryson Williams, and the freshman definitely has a bright future. At times in the second half, the Roosevelt High product was Fresno State’s only source of offense.

But Oliver scored 27 points, going 5 of 7 from beyond the arc, and he controlled things defensively with three blocks and three steals.

The Bulldogs don’t have an outside shooter as deadly as Marcus Marshall. Sure, Jahmel Taylor had his moments this season, but not Saturday. Taylor only attempted one shot – and missed. Meanwhile, Marshall scored 25 of his game-high 28 in the second half and only missed once after intermission.

Fresno State got its usual production from Deshon Taylor (21 points). However, the sophomore was on the bench with cramps during a key second-half stretch when Nevada took control.

There’s more. After carrying the Bulldogs with 12 first-half points, Watson didn’t score for the first 12:29 of the second. Fresno State only got four points from its bench. The Bulldogs even lost the turnover battle, an area in which they typically excel.

In the end, there were simply too many areas of deficiency for Fresno State to overcome. Not without playing a perfect game, or without Nevada playing a perfect half.

“Obviously it was a tale of two halves,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said. “We played our worst first half since we’ve been together, and we probably played our best second half since we’ve been together.”

This one will bother the Bulldogs for awhile because they were leading by double digits at halftime and let it get away. Losing is always painful, especially when the stakes are this high.

Still, the takeaway from this one shouldn’t be how Fresno State faltered in the second half. It should be how Nevada rose to a level offensively that the Bulldogs couldn’t match.

There’s no shame in losing to a better team, even one you’ve beaten twice. Basketball, and sports, is full of those contradictions.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee