RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team followed its formula for success perfectly on Saturday afternoon.
“We did what we talked about all preseason,” said senior guard Michael Perez after a 65-49 season-opening victory over the Cal Poly Mustangs in front of a crowd of 5,060 at Lawlor Events Center. “And that’s defend and rebound. Defense gives us a chance to win every single game.”
It certainly was the difference against the Mustangs.
Cal Poly, which advanced to last year’s NCAA Tournament by winning the Big West Conference tournament, shot just 31 percent (18-of-58) from the field. The Mustangs also made just 9-of-18 free throws and missed 18 of their 22 3-point attempts.
“We just had a great team effort on defense,” junior forward A.J. West said.
West was a one-man defensive team to start the game, blocking five Cal Poly shots in the first 11 minutes. West finished with six blocks for the game as the Mustangs shied away from going near him in the second half.
“Yeah, they did,” West said with a smile. “I guess they started to learn.”
West, who missed five of his six shots from the field, finished with six points and eight rebounds to go along with his six blocks in 28 minutes.
“A.J. makes a big difference for us,” said David Carter, who is now 90-75 in his sixth season as Wolf Pack head coach. “He changes a lot of shots. His presence back there is huge.”
Cal Poly, though, led 27-26 at halftime despite West’s presence. The Mustangs jumped out to a 16-8 lead nine minutes into the game as 6-7 forward Joel Awich had a 3-pointer and a dunk.
Anthony Silvestri’s 3-pointer gave Cal Poly a 25-22 with 4:22 left in the half and Alberto Ganis hit a jumper with 51 seconds to go for a 27-26 Mustangs lead at the break.
Carter, though, wasn’t too worried.
“I thought we were still playing good defense in the first half,” Carter said. “Cal Poly shot just 37 percent in the first half.”
“At halftime we knew all we just had to do is come out in the second half and make shots because we were good on the defensive end,” sophomore guard D.J. Fenner said.
The Wolf Pack also struggled on offense in the first 20 minutes, shooting just 31 percent (8-of-26) in the first half. Marqueze Coleman led the Pack at halftime with seven points but the junior point guard also had no assists and two turnovers.
That all changed in the second half. The Pack shot 50 percent (15-of-30) in the second 20 minutes.
“We call the second half ‘winning time,’” Perez said. “That’s just our time to go out and make plays.”
The Wolf Pack did just that right from the start of the second half. The Pack went on an 8-1 run in the first three minutes of the second half to take a 34-28 lead. Coleman had a lay-up to tie the game at 28-28, Perez and sophomore forward Kaileb Rodriguez each hit jumpers for a 32-28 lead and Fenner had a left-handed layup.
“I thought in the first half we weren’t aggressive enough on offense,” Carter said.
“I just think in the first half we weren’t prepared to take the open shots,” Perez said. “In the second half we took those shots.”
A 7-0 run, turning a 38-32 lead with 15:19 to play into a comfortable 45-32 advantage with 13:35 left, allowed the Wolf Pack to take control of the game. Fenner, who finished with a team-high 12 points, had a lay-up for a 40-32 lead, center Ronnie Stevens came off the bench for another lay-up and a 42-32 lead and Tyron Criswell drained a 3-pointer from the left corner for a 45-32 lead.
The Wolf Pack offense, it seemed, woke up just in time.
“If you harp on the offense too much, the team becomes selfish,” said Carter, explaining his defensive-first mentality. “We recruit for offense. All our players can score. The offense will take care of itself.”
Cal Poly never threatened down the stretch as the Wolf Pack led by nine or more points over the final 9:44.
Eric Cooper, a 6-3 freshman, connected on a 3-pointer from the left corner for a 55-43 lead with 7:29 to play. Criswell had a lay-up for a 58-47 lead with 4:25 left and Perez hit a 3-pointer from the right elbow for a 61-47 lead with 3:25 to play.
Coleman had 11 points and Perez finished with 10 to give the Pack three players (Fenner had a dozen) in double figures. The bench also did its part with Criswell scoring eight points in 11 minutes, Cooper adding seven points and Stevens chipping in with five.
The Pack bench scored 24 points in 53 minutes.
“It’s not one guy,” said Carter, referring to his deep bench. “Everyone contributes. That’s the way we have to do it. Today I just wanted us to collectively as a team methodically build on the lead and that’s what we did.”
The Pack offense was clearly a team effort in the second half. No Pack player took more than five shots or made more than three. Nine players scored from two to seven points in the second half.
“It might not be pretty on offense every night,” Perez said.
“We might not score as many points as we’re used to. But as long as we defend and rebound we’ll be OK.”
The Wolf Pack will host Adams State on Monday night (7 p.m.) at Lawlor Events Center before heading out on the road at the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam Nov. 21-24.
“Last year we lost quite a bit at home and that left a sour taste in our mouths,” said Carter, explaining the importance of the two home games against Cal Poly and Adams State to open the season. “We never like losing in front of our fans.”