By Kevin Sweeney
For all intents and purposes, it was over at the first media timeout.
In one of the most talked-about mid-major games of the season and a rematch of last season’s Sweet 16, #6 Nevada blitzed Loyola early and the Ramblers never had a big run in them, as the Wolf Pack claimed a 79-65 victory Tuesday night at Gentile Arena.
“We stared at the [Final Four] banner today in shootaround,” Eric Musselman said postgame. While last season’s defeat wasn’t discussed directly before the game, it was clear that the Wolf Pack, especially veteran cogs Caleb & Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline, were out for revenge. Caleb Martin said a picture of the banner was on a pregame slideshow for 5-10 minutes while the team got dressed.
“We had a chip on our shoulder, we had something to prove,” Caleb Martin said. “Obviously it’s not going to get that game back from last year, but it was a good to come to their place and play another game.”
Playing in front of a raucous sell-out crowd that saw students lining up hours in advance to secure their seat, the Ramblers were never able to truly capitalize on the home court energy. Nevada scored 14 of the game’s first 18 points and led by as many as 20 in the opening period, riding an explosive 17 first-half points from redshirt senior Caleb Martin. Martin had 15 in the first 10:15 of game action and looked locked in from the get-go as he looked for revenge from last season’s Sweet 16 defeat.
Loyola would regain its footing after the disastrous start, riding 5th-year senior Marques Townes’ 12 first-half points to re-energize the crowd and keep Loyola within some kind of striking distance. A triple by freshman Cooper Kaifes got the Ramblers back within 12 late in the first half with a chance to gain momentum into halftime, but Nevada had the answer with four unanswered to go into the half up 16.
That established a common theme– every Loyola push was responded to with a silencer or two by the Wolf Pack. Whether it was an awkward floater by big man Trey Porter or a dagger three by Caleb Martin, the Pack always had an answer.
“I didn’t think we quit. I thought we battled. I thought we played our tails off,” Loyola head coach Porter Moser said. “Every time we tried to claw back, they answered the bell.” Townes attributed Loyola’s inability to get back into the game with not getting stops at the defensive end, noting that the Ramblers got just one “gap” (a term Loyola uses for 3 consecutive defensive stops) all game.
The 6-11 grad transfer Porter, who wasn’t a part of last year’s run, was huge in this one. He impacted the game on both ends, holding star Loyola big Cameron Krutwig to just 5-11 shooting while posting 14 points and 10 rebounds on the offensive end. Moser quipped that he wasn’t sure if Krutwig had missed six shots all season, crediting the addition of Porter’s length as an area where Nevada had improved from last season.
“He did a great job of walling up and altering shots,” Musselman said. “When he plays that good defensively, we’re really a different team.”
Both Krutwig and senior point guard Clayton Custer were seemingly bothered by the length Nevada trotted out. No one in the Nevada starting lineup was listed smaller than 6-7. Custer twice had shots blocked from behind from the Martins.
“I thought Nevada was just so physically imposing defensively,” Moser said. “If you do get to the rim, there was like three sets of arms to block a shot.” Moser noted several times the experience of this Nevada team, with five 5th-year seniors making up the starting lineup and just one player (5-star freshman Jordan Brown) in the regular playing rotation that isn’t at least in his 4th year of college.
That comes in sharp contrast to Loyola, which played three freshmen and two sophomores regular minutes. One freshman that answered the bell tonight was Cooper Kaifes, a shooting guard who posted 11 points in 24 minutes of action.
“I thought Cooper Kaifes was absolutely not afraid of the moment,” Moser said. “That was a huge bright spot.”
Nevada was led by Caleb Martin’s 21 and Cody Martin’s 20 points to go along with 7 assists. Champaign, IL native Jordan Caroline posted a workmanlike 15 points and 6 rebounds in a homecoming of sorts. Caroline had several family members at the game. The Wolf Pack move to 7-0 on the season with a tough stretch upcoming featuring tilts with USC, Arizona State, Utah, and mid-major powers Grand Canyon and South Dakota State in the next 6 games.
Townes’ 24 points and 9 rebounds led the way for Loyola, which falls to 4-3 on the season. Custer was limited to just 4-11 shooting for 10 points, while Krutwig needed 11 shots for his 11 points. The Ramblers are back in action against UIC this weekend.
Sophomore guard Lucas Williamson is dealing with hand swelling and will get x-rays, Moser said. He noted that the swelling was similar to the swelling experienced by Ben Richardson when the since-graduated guard broke his hand last fall.