FORT COLLINS | Colorado State picked up right where it left off from the Mountain West Tournament on Tuesday, defeating visiting College of Charleston, 81-74, in its National Invitational Tournament opener. Rams senior guard Gian Clavell flirted with a triple-double, finishing with a game-high 22 points, while adding 9 rebounds and 7 assists.
The win keeps a special season for the Rams alive, as the 24th win of the season for CSU (24-11) is third most in school history.
"We knew we were playing a very good team. I asked this team if they wanted to continue to play, and before I could even get 'play' out they said yes, after a tough loss to Reno," CSU head coach Larry Eustachy said after the win. "These guys are very hungry and I thought they showed it. They beat a very good team that manhandled Boise this year, and we couldn't handle Boise."
CSU led for most of the game and for the entire second half. The Rams got two big three-pointers from Clavell and one from Prentiss Nixon to jump out to a lead, yet never led by more than six points until the 3:45 mark of the first half, when another Clavell three-pointer put CSU up 38-30. The Rams led 42-33 at halftime, having played effective uptempo offense and praiseworthy defense.
Clavell was patient and effective in the opening 20 minutes, preferring to dish out passes than spot up from deep. Even when he did take a trio of heavily contested three-pointers, he was able to knock them down. Following a 4-for-8 field goal rate, Clavell went into the break with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists.
The senior guard and his teammates continued where they left off coming out of the break. J.D. Paige, who played confidently as the team's point man, finished with 15 points, while Nixon added 19. The Rams scored in spurts, marked by 8-0 and 9-0 runs. Even when CSU failed to score in intervals that lasted up to four minutes, they had built strong enough leads to withstand any Charleston comeback effort.
CSU won the rebounding war 39-36, but it was 11 big offensive rebounds - 5 from Nico Carvacho - that helped lead to 10 second chance points. Carvacho played well in notching 8 points and a team-high 11 rebounds.
"When Nico gets offensive rebounds, he's a freshman, but he plays like a grown man," Clavell said of Carvacho. "It's amazing down under seeing how high he gets. It's wonderful to watch."
Clavell's strong effort on both ends of the floor was noted by his head coach. Time and time again, Clavell is given the freedom to take highly difficult, low percentage jumpers with defenders in his face, simply because he has the confidence and ability to make those shots.
He also has the confidence of his head coach.
"Gian looked at me at the Nevada game, or whatever game it was, and he took an acrobatic shot," Eustachy said. "I mean, some guys have total freedom. I mean, that's what makes them the best is total freedom."
It was his patience and a willingness to put the team first, Clavell said, that led to his success.
"Whatever my team needs me to do, that's what I'm going to do. Today, I started to make a lot at first. Just whatever they need me to do, that's my job, as a senior and a leader of the team," Clavell said.
The Rams await word of their second round opponent. For now, Eustachy is enjoying a special season as head coach of the Rams.
"I'm just really proud of them. You know, not to get longwinded, but I sat up in the gym on purpose, way up there, and just watched these guys come in the gym... It's just a close group of seven guys. I think all seven could take a cab together. It almost brought me to tears. They're really close and they like to play. We beat a very formidable opponent today, so I'm really proud of these guys.
"It's team together. Everybody was chipping in. When everybody plays like that and we play defense, it's hard to beat us, honestly."