MOSCOW, Idaho – Hard as it was to believe, the din inside Cowan Spectrum might have been more ear-splitting than two nights before against Boise State. Idaho was on what’s become its patented late-game tear at home, and Nevada appeared helpless to stop it.
But that was before Luke Babbitt showed why he’s one of the most heralded recruits in Wolf Pack basketball history.
The 6-foot-9 freshman erupted for a season-high 24 points and took over in crunch time to carry Nevada past the Vandals 69-65 on Saturday night in a fight for second place in the Western Athletic Conference.
Instead of vaulting up the conference standings, UI fell to 10-11 overall and 4-4 in WAC play, just ahead of sixth-place San Jose State.
“You’ve got to give Nevada credit,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “We get up five with 4 minutes to go and they out-toughed us. That’s the bottom line.”
The Wolf Pack (13-8, 6-2) overcame an Idaho push and a rambunctious crowd of 2,806 on the shoulders of Babbitt. The Reno, Nev., product and McDonald’s All-America started lighting it up about the time Idaho took its first lead, which ballooned to a 61-56 advantage after a Brandon Wiley layup with 4:41 left.
Nevada responded with a 3-pointer from Babbitt, which ignited a 13-4 Wolf Pack flurry to finish the game. Seven of those points came from the skilled forward.
“We were against the ropes,” Babbitt said. “Idaho had us down and we knew if we didn’t make a play, we’d go home with a loss. Two losses on the road trip we didn’t want that, so we had to do something.”
Nevada, the five-time defending WAC champs, was the preseason favorite to take the crown once again. Yet it came close to losing twice in January to the Vandals, who were picked to finish last but opened the conference season with a 78-73 win in Reno.
“We didn’t execute a lot (like) our coach wanted us to,” UI guard Kashif Watson said. “But they’re a good team. They came out and executed. That’s what Nevada does.”
The sleeker and longer Wolf Pack gave the jittery Vandals fits in the first half. Nevada blocked 12 shots (eight in the opening half), four of which came from Dario Hunt in the first 12 minutes.
But the Vandals persevered on the strength of deft 3-point shooting from Trevor Morris (13 points on 4-of-7 shooting from long range) and the penetration of Watson and point guard Mac Hopson.
The athletic backcourt duo combined for 30 points, while Hopson matched his total of eight assists from an emotionally draining win over BSU on Thursday.