Leading by one, AJ West, playing just his fourth game in Nevada blue after the NCAA declared him eligible, came up with a win-preserving defensive play with two seconds left to force a wild shot and seal what would eventually be a 61-58 win.
“It was a great win, we’re 2-0 (in conference) now,” West said. “I think we’re starting to get it together, get the chemistry up. It’s a big, big win.”
West was all over Larry Nance Jr. (14 points) whose shot went well over the rim and Michael Perez grabbed the sporadic heave before hitting both free throws to put the game to bed.
Nevada improved to just 7-8 overall but 2-0 in the MWC after Wednesday's 62-50 New Year's win at San Jose St. Wyoming fell to 9-5 overall in its MWC opener.
The drama of West’s defensive stop was set up by Deonte Burton’s move in the paint with 31 ticks left to put Nevada in front 59-58.
Nevada coach David Carter said he didn’t even draw a play in the timeout before the possession. The plan: give the ball to the best player on the court and let him win the game.
“If I drew up something and they went to a zone, I just said (to Burton), you've got to make a play,” Carter said. “I didn’t know if they were going to be man. I didn’t know if they were going to be zone (Wyoming was) … To be honest, at that time, it’s about making a play.”
“I saw a big opening in the middle of the zone,” Burton said. “So I recognized that and just took it to the hole.”
Burton finished with a team-high 16 points, none larger than his final two.
Nevada led the majority of the first half and took a 30-26 lead into the break holding the Cowboys to 36 percent shooting from the floor.
Not bowing out on the road, the Cowboys opened the second half on a 15-6 run to grab a 41-36 lead at the 13:53 mark in the second half. The five-point lead was Wyoming’s biggest of the game. Nevada’s six-point advantage, after scoring the opening bucket of the second half, accounted for its biggest lead of its MWC home opener.
Cole Huff scored eight consecutive points -- two free throws and two three-pointers -- to put Nevada in front 54-53 with 3:49 to bring the announced crowd of 5,740 to its feet. Huff finished with 15 points.
“He (Huff) came in and made some big shots and they were timely,” Carter said. “I told him that when he was on the bench. I said ‘you have to come in. You’re going to be open, and you have to hit some shots for us’ and he stepped up and answered the bell when we needed it.”
Nevada dominated the glass Saturday afternoon, out-rebounding the Cowboys 35-26.
After hitting a low point just a week ago, losing to Long Beach State at home after leading by five with 36 seconds left to cap a 1-2 home stand, Nevada has now won its first two MWC meetings and seemingly developed a defensive persona, largely behind the quick development of West. The junior transfer turned in his first collegiate double-double (12 points, 12 rebounds).
While West admits he still has a long way to go in his development, he will play a pivotal in Nevada’s success this season, opening up lanes for Burton, Huff, Perez and Jerry Evans Jr.
Perez was the fourth Nevada player to finish in double digits with 11 points.
“We try not to forget about the preseason but you've got to move forward and I think that’s what we did,” Carter said. “We took a big step forward this week getting ready for conference.”
Nevada travels to Las Vegas Wednesday to meet with UNLV at 6:15 p.m. before returning back to Lawlor, Saturday, for a two-game homestand, starting with Utah State.
The Pack is 3-4 at home this season.