Twas three nights after Christmas and, well, the Nevada Wolf Pack still had visions of sugar plums in their heads.
“I always look at this as a tough game coming off Christmas break,” coach David Carter said after his Wolf Pack survived a scare from the Cedarville Yellow Jackets, 71-61, Wednesday night at Lawlor Events Center. “I knew this would be a tough one for us.”
The Wolf Pack (10-3), who have now won seven in a row and 10 of their last 11, proved their head coach right. The Pack fell behind by as much as nine (36-27) and then had to fight off the NAIA school from Ohio in the second half.
“The break kind of got us rusty,” said point guard Deonte Burton of the Wolf Pack’s three-day holiday vacation from basketball Friday through Sunday.
“It was a tough game after three days off,” said junior guard Malik Story, who scored a game-high 19 points.
The Pack returned to practice on Monday and Tuesday but seemed to leave their intensity under the Christmas tree on Wednesday night in front of 3,376 fans.
“It was their only days off since last August,” Carter said. “Five of the guys are from Southern California and they went back home to be with their families. I just wanted them to get off their feet and rest and enjoy their families.”
They almost didn’t get to enjoy a victory against Cedarville. The Yellow Jackets, playing the eighth game of a grueling 11-game road trip, took advantage of a lazy Wolf Pack defensive effort in the first half to build their shocking nine-point lead.
“We just gave them way too many open shots,” Story said. “We’re supposed to run them off the (3-point) line and we didn’t do that. Teams that can shoot can hurt you like that.”
The Yellow Jackets, who have scored 90 or more points three times this year, drained 6-of-9 from beyond the arc and shot 56% overall from the field in the first half.
“We left some of their shooters open,” Carter said. “We lost some of our assignments.”
Carter used a media timeout with 3:39 to play in the first half to remind his team that their Christmas break was over.
“Coach told us we had to bring more energy,” Burton said. “We were kind of lackadaisical.”
The Wolf Pack dominated the final 3:39 of the first half, going on a game-changing 11-0 run to take a 38-36 halftime lead. Six of the 11 points during the run came on free throws to go along with a 3-pointer by Story and a dunk by Olek Czyz.
And it was all made possible by defense.
The Pack forced Cedarville into five turnovers in the final three minutes as Hunt and Story had steals.
“When we got down by nine I told them to start to focus in on their defense,” Carter said. “I knew we had to fight through it and try to find our rhythm defensively.”
“They wanted to shoot the three all night,” said Story. “Even when they started to penetrate, you could tell they wanted to kick it back out for a three.”
Cedarville was 10-of-21 from 3-point range. Yellow Jackets’ guard Daniel Hickman was 4-of-4 from beyond the arc and finished with a team-high 15 points.
The Pack, namely Story, also used the 3-pointer as a weapon in the first half. Story was 5-of-7 on threes in the first half and scored 17 points in just 15 minutes.
“It was like they were daring me to shoot,” Story said. “They had their hands down and weren’t even contesting it.”
The Yellow Jackets, though, did put up a fight in the second half. The Wolf Pack never trailed in the second half but Cedarville did pull to within 51-50 with 11:55 to play and 65-60 with 1:56 left.
Story scored just two points in 13 second-half minutes. His only two points of the second half came on a dunk — the first in his two-year Wolf Pack career — and gave the Pack a 45-41 lead with 16:34 to go.
“I wanted to go inside more,” Carter said. “So I took that (the 3-point shot) away from him a little bit in the second half. Other than Malik we weren’t shooting the three well so I didn’t want us to start to rely on it.”
Story missed his only 3-point attempt in the second half and finished 5-of-8 from beyond the arc for the game. His teammates, though, were a combined 1-of-13 on 3-pointers. The Pack missed all seven of its 3-pointers in the second half but won the game by going 12-of-17 (71%) from inside the arc.
“We got a lot of easy baskets because of our defense,” said Hunt, who just missed his fifth consecutive double-double with 13 points and eight rebounds. “When we’re running we’re an extremely tough team to stop.”
The Pack, though, didn’t pull away from the Yellow Jackets for good until Jerry Evans’ 3-point play with 1:12 to play gave them a 68-60 lead. Evans rebounded a missed 3-pointer by Burton for a lay-up, drew the foul and converted the free throw for the eight-point lead with 72 seconds left.
“That’s a dangerous team,” said Carter of Cedarville. “I knew this would be a dangerous game coming off the break. But we found a way to win.”