Nevada beats Colorado State 79-71 for Mountain West crown
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By W.G. RAMIREZ
LAS VEGAS (AP) Nevada is king of college basketball in the Silver State.
Jordan Caroline had 23 points and 10 rebounds as Nevada beat Colorado State 79-71 on Saturday in the Mountain West Conference championship game to earn its first NCAA Tournament berth in 10 years.
The top-seeded Wolf Pack (28-6) claimed the league's automatic bid and took home their first conference tournament title since 2006, when they were in the Western Athletic Conference. They received an at-large invitation to the NCAAs the following season.
A decade later, Nevada has finally punched its ticket to return - three days after the worst season in UNLV history ended.
"It's a great feeling winning it anywhere, knowing we have an automatic bid to go to the Dance," Caroline said when asked about winning the tournament inside the Thomas and Mack Center, UNLV's home arena. "I wanted to help my team any way I could to get to the tournament. Not just scoring - any way I could."
Caroline was chosen tournament MVP after compiling 55 points and 28 rebounds in three games.
After squandering a 16-point lead and allowing the Rams to tie the game midway through the second half, Nevada used an 11-3 run during a five-minute stretch to build another cushion while Colorado State (23-11) missed eight consecutive field goal attempts.
The Rams pulled to 66-65 when J.D. Paige hit a 3-pointer with 2:32 left, but they never managed to tie the score again.
"At halftime we talked to the team and we all discussed - we knew that they weren't going to go away, that they would compete and make a run," Nevada coach Eric Musselman said. "They're tough-minded and can compete. I'm proud of the way we defended and rebounded, especially when we struggled to score at times and they went on their scoring run."
Marcus Marshall added 21 points and was 12 of 15 from the free throw line down the stretch for Nevada, which went to the line 35 times to 11 for Colorado State.
Nevada got 25 of its 39 points in the second half from the foul line.
At the start, Nevada scored the first nine points en route to building a 16-point advantage with balanced scoring across the board.
The Wolf Pack, who shot 9 of 24 (79 percent) from the field in the second half of their semifinal win over Fresno State, carried the momentum into the championship game, hitting 58 percent (19 of 33) from the floor in the first half.
Caroline found his stroke early against the Rams, making his first four attempts. As a team, the Wolf Pack hit nine of their first 14 shots from the field while building a 19-10 lead.
The Rams put together a mini-run of their own and cut the deficit to four at the 8:02 mark. But Nevada's depth was too much, as it outscored Colorado State 25-17 to close the half and head into the locker room with a 44-32 lead.
"This is a special group that I will always remember," Rams coach Larry Eustachy said. "I can't speak for Gian or Emmanuel, but I don't think we want to stop playing. I think we want to keep this group together as long as we can. I would assume we're in the NIT, and we're anxious to see what happens there, and how far we can advance."
It marked the eighth time the top two seeds met for the Mountain West title. The second seed won the previous seven matchups.
Colorado State: Clavell surpassed 1,000 career points. He came into the game needing 11 to reach the milestone.
Nevada: After struggling through their worst first half of the season, scoring a mere 21 points on 23 percent shooting in a semifinal win over Fresno State, the Wolf Pack have shot 42 of 79 (53 percent) from the field, including 15 of 47 (41 percent) from 3-point range, in their last three halves of basketball.
THE CODE TO THE DANCE
Musselman said a security code for the door to the room where team meetings are held has been the same since the first meeting of the season: 3-12-17. "Because that's the day of Selection Sunday," he said. "And it's been that way for 11 months, basically, where every time they walk in that locker room they had to put that code in. ... This was our goal from Day One."
RICE'S SWEET RETURN
Nevada assistant coach Dave Rice brings an NCAA Tournament pedigree to the bench for the Wolf Pack. Rice was fired by rival UNLV last season - three games into conference play - but was hired by Musselman last April. Rice, a member of UNLV's 1990 national championship team, took the Runnin' Rebels to the NCAA Tournament in his first two seasons as coach, but did not make the postseason in his last two.
Colorado State: The Rams might be on the bubble to make the NCAA Tournament. If they don't, they expect to receive an NIT bid.
Nevada: Will find out Sunday where it is headed in the NCAA Tournament.
This story has been corrected with the last time Nevada made the NCAA Tournament.
Updated March 12, 2017