Nevada, the tournament host, advances into a tourney semifinal tonight at 9 p.m. against New Mexico State at Lawlor Events Center. The game will be broadcast live nationally on ESPN2.
The loss ends Idaho’s season.
The Wolf Pack grabbed the momentum immediately. Nevada bolted to a 13-2 lead less than four minutes into the tournament tilt. Armon Johnson capped the quick spurt with two free throws and a pull-up jumper in transition.
“I thought they played extremely well,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “I thought they started right from the get-go tonight. Luke Babbitt hit a big three to open the game and away they went. We never got the game at the tempo that we wanted to have it at. That just goes to a credit to a very good, very experienced Nevada team.”
Idaho stopped the bleeding for a while. The Vandals got within five, 21-16, following a Kyle Barone putback. The margin was still six, 27-21, after a Luiz Toledo bucket at the 9:43 mark of the first half.
Nevada proceeded to go on another key run, this time a 14-2 outburst, concluded by back-to-back Luke Babbitt runners that left the Wolf Pack on top 41-23 with just over five minutes to go before halftime.
Babbitt turned in a game-high 21-point performance.
“The starting five came out with a lot of energy,” Babbitt said. “We played pretty good defense and we got a big lead and were able to hold it. We got a little sloppy but a win’s a win at this point, it’s the WAC tournament. If you lose you’re out so we’ll take it.”
Idaho tried to hang around. The Vandals scored 11 of the next 15 points and trimmed the Pack’s edge to 45-34.
Nevada wound up taking a 47-34 lead into the locker room at halftime.
“I thought tonight the guys came out with great energy,” Nevada coach David Carter said. “I thought we got off to a great start which was very important for us. We continued energy through the first 20 minutes and continued to the second half.”
Nevada came out of the gates with a red-hot shooting stroke. The Wolf Pack made 7 of its first 11 tries from beyond the three-point arc and 13-of-18 overall. It also outscored Idaho 14-0 in fast-break points en route to grabbing the double-digit halftime advantage.
Idaho (15-16) never really got back in the game after halftime. The Vandals did score the first basket of the second half, on a bank shot from the wing by Luciano De Souza. That trimmed Nevada’s lead to 47-36 less than 30 seconds into the second half.
That’s as good as it got for the Moscow, Idaho school. Nevada scored the next eight points and was never seriously threatened.
De Souza finished with 20 points to lead Idaho. Mac Hopson and Marvin Jefferson finished with 15 and 14 points.
A Brandon Fields spinning layup with 16:31 to go in the game stretched Nevada’s lead to 20 for the first time, 60-40.
Nevada went up by as much as 21, on three different occasions, the last at 81-60 following a pair of Babbitt foul shots with 5:40 showing on the game clock.
“We had our ups and downs and I think we’re peaking at the right time,” Carter said. “We’re sharing the ball and we’re involving everyone. The best is yet to come I think. I think we still have a lot of good basketball ahead of us.”
The Wolf Pack’s win Thursday means it has won its first-round tournament game for the eighth time in its last nine seasons. It also gave Nevada (20-11) its seventh consecutive 20-win season.
Nevada got a balanced offensive attack as five players hit for double digits in the scoring column. In addition to Babbitt’s big night, Brandon Fields and Joey Shaw scored 15 and 14 points respectively for the Wolf Pack. Johnson and Dario Hunt chipped in 13 and 12 to the winning cause.
“I think it was a good win,” Fields said. “We had a lot of fans here. The crowd brought a lot of energy. Today we played together as a team. The starting five, we all were in double digits. I think if we play like this the rest of the tournament we’ll do what we want.”
Idaho narrowly won the rebounding battle, 37-36, and outscored Nevada 19-4 in second-chance points, but the Vandals could not overcome the Wolf Pack’s hot hand. Nevada finished 31-of-56 shooting (55.4 percent) and 10-18 from three-point range. Conversely, Idaho was just 27-of-68 (39.7 percent) and 6-of-20 from three land.
“You’ve got to give them credit,” Verlin said. “I thought they did a good job of executing their offense. We played some zone and they knocked down the open shots.
“I thought offensively, especially in the first half, we got some open looks just didn’t knock them down. If you’re going to beat a team on their home court in a game this big you’ve got to play very, very well and you’ve got to have things go your way. I thought we missed some open shots and I thought they did a good job of taking advantage of all their opportunities.”