As far as the Nevada Wolf Pack is concerned, the men’s basketball season started Saturday afternoon at Lawlor Events Center.
“It’s a new start,” Wolf Pack point guard Marqueze Coleman said after a convincing 80-62 victory over the Air Force Falcons in front of a crowd of 6,638. “Once conference started we just wanted to get off on the right foot.”
The Mountain West-opening victory was never in doubt for the Wolf Pack, which led by at least nine points over the final 31 minutes of the game.
“When we play like that, it’s a lot of fun out there,” guard D.J. Fenner said. “It’s fun for us and it’s fun for the crowd.”
The Wolf Pack, now 5-8 overall and 1-0 in the Mountain West, has had a lot of fun lately. The Pack has won three games in a row, all at home, since Dec. 22 after losing eight in a row.
“This is definitely the best game we’ve played this year,” Fenner said.
The Wolf Pack, which had not scored as many as 70 points in any of its first 10 games, has gone over 80 in each of the last three.
“We never expected it to be like it was those first 10 games,” said Coleman, who scored a career-high 18 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the floor. “We always knew we could score.”
Fenner added 17 points and A.J. West added 16 for the Pack, who had three players with 16 or more points in the same game for the first time since an 80-77 loss to Long Beach State on Dec. 28, 2013.
“We struggled those first 10 games but the guys always knew they could score,” Pack coach David Carter said. “Those first 10 games guys didn’t know where on the floor to get their shots. They struggled to find their rhythm. Even though we had a veteran team, I learned that you still have to continue to teach and show them where to take their shots.”
The Wolf Pack took control of the game during a 9-0 run midway through the first half. Fenner had four free throws during the run, Tyron Criswell had a lay-up and Coleman completed a three-point play as the Pack took an 18-5 lead with 9:33 to go in the opening half.
The lead reached 18 (32-14) with 3:33 to go in the half as Kaileb Rodriguez and Michael Perez converted lay-ups less than a minute apart. Robyn Missa also had a 3-pointer for a 23-11 lead and Fenner connected from long range for a 28-11 advantage.
“We just controlled the whole game from the tip-off to the final buzzer,” Fenner said. “The key was that we also came out in the second half and continued to control the game.”
Coleman hit a 3-pointer just 39 seconds into the second half for a 37-21 Pack lead to set the tone. The junior made a career-high three 3-pointers in four attempts against the Falcons. He was just 3-of-21 from beyond the arc this season going into the game and had made more than one 3-pointer in a game just once before in his career (two against Boise State late last season).
“It’s just a confidence factor,” Coleman said. “I just kept working at it.”
West was the difference in the second half, with a dozen points and seven boards after the break. The junior finished with 16 points and 13 boards for his fourth double-double of the season.
“I’m just looking to be consistent each game,” said West, who is averaging 15.3 points over his last three games.
West had a dunk for a 41-25 Pack lead with 16:32 to play. He also helped keep the Pack lead in double digits in the final eight minutes with six free throws. His dunk, giving the Pack a 78-60 lead with a minute to play, put an exclamation mark on the victory.
“They were a shorter team and not very big so I just looked at it as an opportunity to attack the glass,” the 6-9 West said. “In the first half I was kind of sluggish so I knew I had to come out in the second half and be more aggressive.”
“When A.J. plays like that it’s huge for us,” Coleman said. “Nobody can keep him off the glass.”
West had nine offensive rebounds against the Falcons, his most since he had 10 against Weber State on Nov. 24. West now has 59 offensive rebounds and 49 defensive rebounds this year and is averaging 9.0 boards a game. The Pack, led by West, dominated the Falcons on the boards, 38-25.
Carter said West is the best offensive rebounder the Pack has had since he joined the program as an assistant in 1999.
“Dario Hunt was close,” Carter said. “But A.J. is a little bit bigger and stronger.”
Carter really only had one teaching moment in the game. Air Force (7-6, 0-2) was beginning to attack the basket with regularity for easy lay-ups and had cut the Pack’s lead to nine (57-48) after a 3-pointer by Marek Olesinski (game-high 19 points) with just under nine minutes to play.
“We were trying to overplay and get steals and we were getting out of position on defense,” Carter said. “So I just called a timeout and told them to calm down and stay disciplined.”
The Pack, which has now won four games in a row against Air Force and leads the series 4-1, immediately went on a 7-0 run to take a 64-48 lead with 7:20 to go as West hit three free throws, and Coleman had two jumpers.
“I thought we played well for 40 minutes,” Carter said.
Air Force, now 0-5 on the road this year, was just 6-of-20 on 3-pointers.
“We wanted them to shoot from the perimeter,” Carter said.
The Wolf Pack will play at UNLV on Wednesday night before returning to Lawlor to host Fresno State next Saturday.
“That (at UNLV) will be a big test for us,” said Carter, whose Wolf Pack swept two games from the Rebels last season.