For the second time in a week, Nevada denied Colorado State a conference Championship.
The Wolf Pack defeated the Rams in their final regular season game March 4 to win the regular season title outright, then the top-seeded Wolf Pack held off a valiant comeback effort from the second-seeded Rams to win the conference tournament on Saturday, 79-71.
With the win, the Wolf Pack earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament, while the Rams will likely be entered into the National Invitational Tournament.
Similar to Friday night's thrilling comeback win over San Diego State, the Rams came out of the gate slow. More aptly put, they were sluggish, looked discombobulated and had no early answer for Nevada's hot start offensively. The Wolf Pack jumped out to a 9-0 lead and reached a 30-17 lead at the 6:49 mark of the first half following an 8-0 run. Jordan Caroline jumpstarted Nevada, scoring 16 first half points at a sizzling 7-for-8 rate.
The Conference Tournament MVP also worked the Rams on the glass. The versatile wing hustled his way to 10 rebounds and finished with 23 points for the game. Caroline was the star of Nevada's potent, yet streaky, offensive attack against the Rams.
Cameron Oliver, Nevada's much gushed about front man, struggled with foul trouble for much of the contest, but was able to muster 14 rebounds and 4 points in 28 minutes. UNR's ability to out-muscle the Rams on the glass was a major component in keeping CSU at bay late. They out-rebounded CSU 46-34. Also factoring heavily into their success was a 26-for-35 free throw rate, whereas the Rams got to the charity stripe just 11 times and converted 6 of those attempts.
CSU trailed Nevada by 15 points until a buzzer-beating three-point make from J.D. Paige cut the Wolf Pack's lead to 12 points heading into halftime. Sluggish play by all seven scholarship players marked an anxious first half for the Rams.
The Rams' leaders and catalysts all season, Gian Clavell and Emmanuel Omogbo, scored the first six points of the second half to give CSU life. As the Rams continued to chop away at Nevada's lead, three Prentiss Nixon three-pointers and a Clavell jumper tied the game up at 51 at the 11:33 mark of the second half.
The Wolf Pack then took advantage of poor shooting and ill-advised fouls from the Rams over the next four minutes to take a nine-point lead. Marcus Marshall nailed all six free-throw attempts over that period and made 12-of-16 from the line for the game.
But Colorado State just wouldn't go away. The scrappy Rams got to within two points twice with under five minutes to go, then made it a one-point game with 2:38 left on a wide open Paige three-pointer from the right wing. However, the 'Pack capitalized on more CSU fouls to take a 73-65 lead with 33 seconds remaining. Heroic three-pointers from Nixon and Clavell late weren't enough, as Nevada prevailed, 79-71.
Marshall finished with 21 points, over half of which came at the free throw line. D.J. Fenner and Josh Hall each added 12 points to put four Wolf Pack in double figures.
Gian Clavell was a warrior for the Rams once again. He never left the floor, playing all 40 minutes and cashed in on a game-high 30 points and six rebounds. Time and again, Clavell shot CSU back into the game. Difficult step back three-pointers, spinning drives and tough finishes were all part of another remarkable scoring night for Clavell, who also played admirably on the defensive end and led his team during timeouts when several outsets of the game appeared bleak for the Rams.
While Omogbo had another subpar outing for CSU, the Rams' front court leader concluded the game with 10 points and 12 rebounds, giving him his CSU single season-best 20th double-double of the season. Braden Koelliker, Nico Carvacho and Anthony Bonner struggled offensively, going a combined 0-for-9 from the field. Clavell and Nixon combined to score 53 of CSU's 71 points.
The Rams were out-rebounded by 12 and Nevada got to the free throw line over three times as many occasions as CSU, but the Rams were able to grit out a tough effort on both ends of the floor to make it a close game late. CSU's remarkable run to the Mountain West Championship Game came up just a few plays short of the Rams earning an improbable berth into the NCAA Tournament.
Clavell and Nixon were joined by Caroline, Marshall and Oliver from Nevada on the All-Tournament Team. CSU now awaits its selection and seeding into the NIT, provided they accept an assumed invitation.