Whatever it is, the Wolf Pack keeps pulling a rabbit out of the hat just in the nick of time to narrowly escape with a victory. It did just that Thursday night at Lawlor Events Center, capturing a dramatic 53-52 WAC win over Utah State.
Outplayed and out-hustled for much of the game, Nevada found itself in need of a defensive stop, down 52-50 with 39 seconds left on the clock. That is when sophomore forward Devonte Elliott, who recorded just four minutes on the night, stepped into the game.
Elliott swatted away a shot by Utah State forward Ben Clifford with 22 ticks on the clock and grabbed the rebound, setting the stage for a thrilling finish to the conference clash.
Wolf Pack point guard Deonte Burton grabbed the outlet pass from Elliott and dribbled up the court. Pulling up at the three-point line and faking a shot, Burton got his defender into the air and leaned into him, trying to get a foul called. When no whistle was blown and under the weight of a falling defender, Burton shot-putted up a prayer that hit nothing but net with 11 seconds on the clock. The prayer gave the Pack the go-ahead bucket.
Similar to a swimmer diving into the pool at the shot of a gun, Burton lay face down as the winning-basket fell.
“It was just a lucky shot to be honest,” Burton said. “I had the confidence but I tried to draw the foul and it went in luckily. I didn’t even see it to be honest. I just heard the crowd reaction and went back on defense.”
With 5.8 seconds remaining, the Aggies still had a chance to steal the game right back. A deflected in-bounds pass left 5.1 on the clock. Burton met Utah State forward Kyisean Reed at the rim on the following in-bound pass, knocking away the attempted lob. A frenzy for the ball ensued before Aggies forward Morgan Grim came up with the ball and went up for the putback with one second slowly waning before the final buzzer. Elliott was on the spot again, swiping the shot out of the air from behind and sealing a program-tying record 16th win consecutive win for Nevada.
“For him to come in off the bench like that and us to tell him we need some big plays from him and he delivered,” Nevada forward Dario Hunt said. “He got a huge blocked shot for us and a rebound and got a couple more rebounds to add to that. You never know who’s going to step up on certain nights and he did a great job of that tonight.
Wolf Pack coach David Carter echoed the praise of Elliott.
“Anytime we tell the guys to come in off the bench, you have to be ready and you have to respond,” Carter said. “I thought he did a good job of staying down and getting his hands up on the blocked shot. I thought he was really engaged, ready to play some defense. I told him he was going to have to make some key plays for us and I thought that was one of the big ones.”
As for the Houdini-like shot from Burton, his teammates didn’t mind as long as they got the results.
“I’ll take that,” Hunt said. “It’s one of the luckiest shots I’ve ever seen, but if it goes in it goes in, so I’ll take that any day.”
The first half resembled a high school game more so than a game of college-level athletes, with Nevada and Utah State shooting 30.4 percent (7-of-23) and 29 percent (9-of-31) from the field, respectively.
UNR jumped out to an early 8-2 lead behind two treys from Malik Story, but a 10-2 Aggies spurt put the score in favor of Utah State 12-11 with 9:12 left in the first half. An 8-4 run gave Nevada the advantage again that it took into the intermission with the score 19-18.
The Wolf Pack pushed its lead to 27-25 three minutes into the second half. Utah State refused to back down, stringing together an 11-2 run that gave the Aggies the lead at 36-29 with 13:42 remaining.
Nevada slowly chipped away at the deficit before tying the game at 42-42 at 7:22 when Story hit a floater over the backboard from the baseline as he drifted out of bounds. Nine exchanged baskets put the Aggies up 52-50 with just over two minutes left before the closing drama unfolded.
“I thought they had a great game plan coming in,” Carter said. “They changed the defense on us. I think that took us out of rhythm. They did a good job of controlling the tempo. We had no tempo at all and we just kind of scratched and crawled and got a victory. Sometimes you have to be lucky.”
The Silver and Blue finished the night 18-of-48 on field goals (37.5 percent), while Utah State ended the game 23-of-58 (39.7 percent). Nevada was out-rebounded 43-28, with the Aggies grabbing 18 offensive boards.
“One word: ugly,” Hunt said. “One through five, we played just an ugly game. That’s what they wanted to come in and try to do to us and that’s what they did. We made enough plays at the end of the day to get a win, so I can’t be too mad.”
Story led the Pack with a game-high 18 points while Burton added 13, all in the second half.
Utah State (12-11, 4-4 WAC) was led with 15 points from guard Preston Medlin and 12 points from guard Brockeith Pane.
Extending its streak to 16, Carter wants his team to remain focused.
“It’s tough because every game you want to win. Every game becomes a bigger one. I try to take it one game at a time. It’s great and I told the guys it’s another win, but we have to forget about this one and get ready for Idaho. Every team is shooting for you. If they beat you, that’s one game they get closer to you, so you’re going to get everybody’s best shot. We just have to match their energy.”
Nevada (19-3, 8-0 WAC) will play host to Idaho Saturday at 7 p.m.
For Hunt and the Wolf Pack, they are hoping their luck won’t run out anytime soon.
“It might just be one of those seasons when you’ve got shots like that going down and still finding ways to get wins when it’s tough. It might just be one of those seasons,” Hunt said.