The strategy behind Nevada’s improbable comeback
Nevada trailed New Mexico by 25 with 11 minutes left, was still down 14 at 89 seconds to go.
Coach Eric Musselman’s message at both junctures was simple: Keep playing hard.
The Wolf Pack did, pulling off one of the greatest comebacks in college basketball history in a place they had never won.
Musselman breaks down how the improbable 105-104 overtime victory on Saturday night in Albuquerque came together:
Coming off an emotional win over San Diego State, Nevada was flat against New Mexico in the first half, trailing 44-31. The lead continued to grow, reaching 74-49 with 11:00 left.
“In a year and a half, we had gained so much respect by playing hard,” said Musselman, in his second season in Reno. “It told them, doesn’t matter if you win or lose, you gain people’s respect by how hard you play and how hard you compete. Just kept reminding them that to continue to play the way we had been playing would be a giant step backward from all the hard work we had done.”
The lead was 78-57 with 8:59 left, so Musselman brought in walk-on John Carlson. A 6-foot-8 sophomore from Reno, he gave the Wolf Pack eight solid minutes of post defense.
With Nevada still down 16, Musselman turned to another walk-on, freshman Charlie Tooley, with 2:48 left.
Tooley had three points in six games entering the game, yet hit the momentum-changing shot: A step-back 3-pointer with 63 seconds left after a steal by Jordan Caroline.
That cut the lead to 11 and Musselman quickly called timeout after the made basket, something he had never done.
“I thought we could actually turn this thing into something kind of interesting,” he said.
The purpose was to get leading scorer Marcus Marshall back into the game.
“Marcus says to one of our grad assistants behind the bench: ‘Why is Coach Muss putting me back in the game?’” Musselman said. “I said, ‘Just get in there and knock down a couple of shots.’”
He sure did.
A senior guard, Marshall has shown a knack for hitting big shots, including a game-winning runner at Washington.
Musselman wanted to spread the floor, so he had two shooters sprint to the corners for spacing and the other three work handoffs at the top of the arc. He didn’t care who brought the ball up the court to save time.
Marshall hit a 3 off a handoff with 52 seconds left, then another from NBA range to make it 91-85 with 40 seconds left.
Even with Marshall making shots, Nevada had to foul and hope the Lobos missed.
As part of the game plan, Musselman and his staff rank opponents’ free-throw shooters from 1 to 10 so the players know who to foul in late-game situations.
Freshman Jalen Harris, a 67 percent free-throw shooter, was on the who-to-foul list and he made 1 of 2.
Junior Elijah Brown, a 79 percent shooter, was tops on the do-not-foul list, yet the Wolf Pack had no choice with time running down. He made 1 of 2 with 36 seconds left and Caroline stepped into a 3-pointer that cut the lead to 92-88 eight seconds later.
Harris made two free throws and Marshall followed with a how-did-that-go-in 3, banking it in from straight on while getting bumped.
He wasn’t done.
Nevada quickly fouled junior Sam Logwood, 66 percent free-throw shooter, and he missed both shots with 16 seconds left.
Musselman didn’t call timeout and Marshall didn’t hesitate, firing another long 3-pointer from an angle that banked in to tie the game at 94-all. The comeback was the second-biggest final-minute comeback in college basketball history.
“He is the best shot maker in late games I’ve had, including NBA players that I’ve coached,” Musselman said.
New Mexico had a chance to tie, but came up short. Musselman told his players to take a deep breath heading into overtime.
“At that point, the emotion of the players, they were actually doing coach speak because they knew how hard they fought back,” Musselman said.
Nevada quickly fell behind in the overtime and was down five heading into the final 72 seconds. The Wolf Pack trimmed the lead to one, then Brown hit 1 of 2 free throws to make it 104-102 with 8 seconds left.
Musselman called timeout and told his players to try for a quick two-pointer or drive to the basket and try to get fouled.
“But if somebody’s got an open look and you feel like you can knock down the 3, let’s go for the dagger and get out of here,” he said. “Caroline was screaming, ‘Give me the ball, I want the ball.’”
Caroline was the second option on the final play, but ended up bringing up the ball when the Lobos played deny defense on Nevada’s point guard.
Caroline kept the ball and pulled up, draining a 3-pointer with 2 seconds left to cap his 45-point, 13-rebound night. New Mexico missed badly on its final attempt and the Wolf Pack rushed onto the court.
“I’ve never been a part of anything like that,” Musselman said. “Not many teams, not many coaching staffs have been through a game that ended like that.”