Nevada Has 'Season To Remember'

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

It was a season to remember - the year Northern Nevada caught a serious case of Wolf Pack fever.

A basketball program that had never won an NCAA Tournament game beat Michigan State and Gonzaga and was within breathing distance of the Elite Eight, where it would have played a team it had beaten by 14 points earlier this season.

The Pack's feverish run ended with a 72-67 loss to Georgia Tech in a St. Louis Regional semifinal game Friday night, where 1,500 Wolf Pack fans were on hand to see a team that turned skeptics into believers.

"In actuality, I think we never thought we could get here," said senior reserve forward Sean Paul.

"We felt like we could compete. We didn't know if we could win these games. It feels so surreal right now."

But it was real. The Pack finished 25-9, equaling the 1945-46 team that went 25-8 for the most victories in school history. The Pack shared the Western Athletic Conference regular-season title with UTEP and won the WAC Tournament.

The wins over Michigan State and Gonzaga arguably were the biggest in school history for a team that also stopped Kansas 75-61 at Reno in December. Kansas, which would have been the next opponent, was ranked sixth at the time.

Throughout the season, Pack coach Trent Johnson made it clear Nevada's run had started in a National Invitation Tournament game against Texas Tech at Lubbock, Texas one year ago.

Nevada lost 66-54, but was competitive on the road against a strong Big 12 team. That game was the first pit stop on the journey to this season.

It was among the first signs that the Pack players were starting to create the spirit that helped them this season.

"Sean Paul, a three-year starter didn't budge at all when Nick (Fazekas) was pressing to the starting lineup," Johnson said.

After the first 11 games, the 6-foot-11 Fazekas, a true freshman, replaced Paul in the starting lineup for the final piece in the puzzle.

Fazekas finished the season as Nevada's second leading scorer. He gave Nevada new offensive expectations. Paul came off the bench to give the Pack a steadying influence on defense.

Western Athletic Conference player of the year Kirk Snyder led the Pack against Georgia Tech with 21 points. Snyder also was the WAC Tournament MVP.

Todd Okeson, the slender senior point guard, was true grit, never intimidated by defenses that tried to rough him up, like Georgia Tech's.

"I got kicked right in the calf and it just kind of flared up," Okeson said. "Got a big bump on it, and then my whole calf was in a cramp probably for five to seven minutes in the second half. So I was one leg for a little bit."

Even on one leg part of the time, the 6-foot Okeson, who had 13 points, led the Pack in rebounds with 10 Friday.

Garry Hill-Thomas became one of the best defensive players in the Sweet 16, limiting Gonzaga star Blake Stepp to 3-of-18 from the field in Nevada's win over the Bulldogs.

The fifth starter, junior forward Kevinn Pinkney, became a more consistent offensive threat in the NCAA Tournament than he had been most of the season. On a night when the Pack hit only 31.9 percent of its shots from the field against Georgia Tech, he went 4-of-5.

Off the bench, the Pack received contributions in its rotation from Jermaine Washington, Marcelus Kemp and Paul.

Even after a final loss, Pinkney didn't feel defeated. He didn't think his teammates should feel that way either.

"My thoughts on the season are great thoughts," Pinkney said. "I'm just happy for the basketball club, what we were able to accomplish."


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