Written By: Bill Harty
Friday’s second semifinal in the WAC tournament featured the regular-season champion Nevada Wolf Pack playing the fifth-seeded Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. Nevada had an easy victory on Thursday over San Jose State, while the Bulldogs defeated Utah State in a mild upset. Although there were some favorites based on the regular season results, any of the top six teams in the WAC standings had the talent to get to the NCAA tournament by winning out this weekend. For this evening’s contest, the Orleans sports book installed Nevada as a 6 ½ point favorite, and expected the scores to total 134, suggesting a significantly slower pace than the earlier semifinal.
As they did with everyone but Idaho, Nevada swept the regular season series, but both were close contests. January 28 in Ruston, the Wolf Pack defeated the Bulldogs by two, 65-63, a game that was close throughout. The rematch in Reno closed the regular season last Saturday, March 3, was also won by Nevada, 79-69.
Both teams started the game in active matchup zone defenses. After a layup by Tech center Romario Souza started the scoring, a brief superhoop fest broke out. Nevada forward Malik Story’s three was answered by Tech shooting guard Brandon Gibson. Nevada’s 6’8” guard Jerry Evans Jr. dropped in a three and was again answered by Gibson. Souza scored another layup before Tech guard Raheem Appleby scored the third Bulldog triple.
The half continued in that fashion. Nevada made a brief run by taking the ball inside several times to forward Olek Czyz, and tied the score at sixteen at the thirteen minutes to play. Guards Trevor Gaskins, Cordarius Johnson, and Kenyon McNeail all scored triples in a Tech 18-3 run putting Louisiana Tech ahead by fifteen at the eight minute mark. Nevada answered with four more triples of their own before the half; Story scored seven and forward Kevin Panzer scored six in the final six minutes of the half. Conference player of the year Deonte Burton dropped in a triple with twenty-one seconds remaining slicing the Bulldog lead to three at the half, 42-39. Nevada made a respectable six of eleven three-point shot attempts in the period, but Tech shot a “lights out” eight for ten. The discussion in the stands at the half was something like, “Tech cannot shoot like that for another half.” At the half, Gaskins had fifteen points for Tech, while Czyz and Story led Nevada with ten each. That was very much the story of this game: Tech’s outside game a little ahead of Nevada’s inside one.
The second half started with the teams mostly matching basket for basket; the largest Tech lead was six, and the teams were tied at twelve minutes, eleven minutes, and ten minutes to play. About that point, Tech point guard Kenneth Smith took over the game for a while, scoring three straight driving layups to put Tech back into the lead, but forwards Czyz and Dario Hunt brought Nevada again to a tie, and brief one point lead with four minutes to play.
Again the teams were matching basket for basket. A jumper by Raheem Appleby gave Tech a one-point lead. Story’s triple put the Wolf Pack up two. Souza’s layup tied the score at 71 with two-and-a-half minutes to go. Burton missed a layup, and two tip attempts failed, before Gibson got the rebound and came down for a jumper to reestablish Tech in the lead. Nevada missed twice and Tech once before Story fouled Kenneth Smith, who was again shooting for a triple. He made all three free throws to put Tech in the lead by five with twenty-nine seconds to play. Nevada had four more shots, making one, and fouling to stop the clock, giving Tech two free throws. Louisiana Tech held on for the upset, 78-73, putting them into Saturday’s WAC final against New Mexico State.
The Bulldogs were led by Gaskins’ twenty-one points, followed by Appleby’s seventeen, and Souza’s sixteen; they ended the game shooting 53% from the floor, and an impressive eight for fourteen (57%) from outside the three-point arc. Nevada had four players with double figure scoring, led by Story’s twenty-one, Czyz’s eighteen, and Evans’ ten; Hunt scored eleven points and nabbed ten rebounds.
The loss did serious damage to Nevada’s RPI ranking, probably enough to send them to the NIT next week. Tech hopes to be Cinderella again on Saturday; a loss completes their season without a realistic hope of postseason play.