Nevada's final eight points all came via the free-throw line in the final four-plus minutes. WAC player-of-the-year candidate Luke Babbitt drained all four as the Wolf Pack held off the Bulldogs in front of 5,479 at Lawlor Events Center.
Nevada (16-9, 8-4 Western Athletic Conference) trailed 43-37 at halftime but rallied midway through the second half.
Wolf Pack point guard Armon Johnson gave up a turnover on his team’s first possession of the second half. That allowed Fresno State's Mike Ladd to score a bucket and push the Bulldogs' lead to 45-37. After the turnover, Johnson got his rhythm going and sparked a run for Nevada, which quickly caught up to Fresno State after a dunk and layup by Johnson keyed a 6-0 run. That left Nevada trailing 49-47 with 15:54 left on the clock.
“I felt like I played pretty poorly in the first half, got into foul trouble and had to sit out for a little bit,” Johnson said. “I just came out pretty aggressive in the second half and helped my team.”
The Bulldogs made another run of their own and pushed the score back up to 57-49 in their favor.
Johnson put Nevada on his back and helped the Pack grab its first lead of the second half. A Johnson trey completed back-to-back three-point plays for Nevada and gave the local team a 60-58 lead.
Nevada coach David Carter felt Johnson’s offensive effort in the second half helped get things rolling for the Wolf Pack.
“I thought he sparked us,” Carter said. “He had a three-point play and a dunk. He definitely sparked the team and got us going in the right direction.”
Two free throws by Fresno State's Sylvester Seay tied the game at 60-60 with 10:42 left. Neither team scored over the next three minutes until Babbitt knocked down a trey for Nevada. Nevada held on to a 66-62 lead after a triple by Brandon Fields, however, back-to-back transition buckets for the Bulldogs tied things up.
Babbitt then scored six straight free throws for the Wolf Pack for a 72-66 advantage. On the second set of free throws, Seay was whistled for his fifth foul and left the game with four minutes still left on the clock.
Fresno State (13-14, 6-7 WAC) got within two, 72-70, on a pair of free throws by Paul George and a layup by Ladd. Nevada got lucky with a block by Dario Hunt on the defensive end with 50 seconds left to play.
The Wolf Pack turned the ball over on offense but the Bulldogs lost the ball out of bounds while trying to maintain possession. Fresno State allowed more than 10 seconds to roll off the clock before finally fouling Babbitt with 8.7 seconds left. Babbitt sank his free shots for the 74-70 final.
Babbitt and Johnson combined for 29 of Nevada’s 37 points in the second half.
“It was a hard fought game against a talented team,” Babbitt said. “We had to make a little comeback in the second half but we showed a lot of toughness in the second half down the stretch.”
It was a battle of offenses in the first half of the conference clash. Trailing 8-4 less than five minutes into the first half, Nevada went on a tear, scoring the next 13 points which led to a 17-8 edge.
Two free throws and a 3-pointer by Seay cut Nevada’s lead to four, 17-13, with just under 10 minutes left to play in the half. Fresno continue to trim the lead and cut it to one with 7:32 left on the first half clock, 22-21, after a layup by Seay. Another trey by Seay gave Fresno back the lead, 26-24.
“I didn’t think we started the game with any energy,” Carter said. “I thought they had the tempo. I thought that we allowed them to do a lot of things, shoot the ball when they wanted to. The zone was very active. We just can’t start games like that.”
Nevada regained a slim lead, 29-28, but a layup by Nedeljko Golubovic followed by a 3-point play by Paul George gave the Bulldogs a 33-29 advantage. They took into halftime with a 43-37 lead.
Seay lit up Nevada for 18 points in the first half but was plagued by foul trouble. He had 22 points on the night. George put in 26 and Ladd added 12 for the Bulldogs.
Babbitt had a game-high 27 points. After scoring just five points in first half, Johnson chipped in 19 points on the night for Nevada.
Nevada travels to play in an ESPN BracketBuster battle at Missouri State at 2 p.m. on Saturday.