Examiner.com Nevada Wolf Pack reporter Joe Santoro takes a look at the Nevada Wolf Pack's four NCAA Tournament victories between 2004-2007. Today's installment looks back at the Wolf Pack's first-ever NCAA Tournament victory against the Michigan State Spartans on March 18, 2004 in Seattle, Wash.
It didn't matter that the Nevada Wolf Pack had five more victories than the Michigan State Spartans. It didn't matter that the Spartans already had lost 11 games.
This was, after all, the Big Ten Spartans of coach Tim Izzo. Just four years earlier the Spartans won the NCAA Tournament, beating the Florida Gators. Just a year earlier the Spartans lost in the regional final.
The NCAA selection committee didn't believe in the Nevada Wolf Pack. And who could blame them? The Wolf Pack had never won a tournament game in their school history. The Wolf Pack hadn't even been in the tournament in 19 years. The Wolf Pack, after all, had opened some eyes with a win over Kansas at home in late December but they were still just 9-6 in the middle of January with three of the wins coming against Weber State, Alabama State and UC Davis.
That's why it was the Spartans who got the No. 7 seed in the St. Louis Regional. And the Wolf Pack got the No 10. It turns out the Spartans had no idea what they were about to face in Seattle's Key Arena on March 18, 2004.
The Wolf Pack, though, began the game as if they were a wide-eyed, frightened, confused team just happy to be in the NCAA tournament. The Pack didn't make their first field goal until 4:15 had ticked off the clock on a Kevinn Pinkney lay-up.
Michigan State, though, also took a while to get its NCAA Tournament sea legs. The Pack regrouped and even took a brief 13-12 lead eight minutes into the game on a Kirk Snyder free throw.
The next four minutes, though, almost ended the Wolf Pack's season.
The Spartans went on a 17-0 run over the next 3:48 to take a commanding 29-13 lead. The Pack missed all five of its shots during the Spartans' run. It looked like the Pack was going to be a one-and-done in its first tournament in 19 years.
But a funny thing happened on the Wolf Pack's way out the door. The upstart program under coach Trent Johnson showed the same fight and character they showed all season and stabilized the game until they could make a run of their own.
But it took a while.
Marcelus Kemp and Pinkney each drained a 3-pointer but the Pack still trailed 31-19 with 7:48 to go in the first half. Snyder then connected on a pair of 3-pointers himself to cut the Spartans' lead to 39-29 with 4:07 to play. Michigan State scored just two points over the final three minutes of the opening half but the Spartans still led 43-34 at the intermission.
Izzo's Spartans still led 59-49 with just under 10 minutes to play after a jumper by Alan Anderson. The Pack was playing right with the Spartans but they were simply trading punches.
The last 8:33, though, changed Wolf Pack basketball history.
It all started with a 3-pointer by Todd Okeson with 8:33 left on the clock that cut the Spartans' lead to 59-52. Fazekas then hit a jumper to cut it to 59-54 with 7:55 to go.
Somehow, some way the Pack was in the game. Two free throws by Sean Paul and four by Okeson pulled the Pack to within 63-60 with 4:18 to go and a jumper by Snyder cut it to 63-62 with 3:32 left.
The Pack then called a timeout and set up a shot by Snyder. The junior guard drained a 3-pointer to give the Pack a stunning 65-63 lead with 2:58 left. All the momentum was now colored silver and blue.
Michigan State had suddenly turned into Weber State.
That Snyder 3-pointer turned out to be the last Pack field goal of the game. But they didn't need anymore. Fazekas and Okeson each hit a pair of free throws as the Pack took a 69-63 lead with 43 seconds to go. Snyder had a free throw with 30 seconds left for a 70-63 lead as Michgian State's offense left the building. Gary Hill-Thomas then put the game away with two free throws with 17 seconds left.
The Spartans scored just three points -- on a desperation 3-pointer by Maurice Ager with 18 seconds to go -- in the final 6:51. They missed nine of their final 10 shots. The Pack went 11-of-12 from the free throw line during that stretch and made 2-of-3 from the floor.
The Wolf Pack won 72-66 and the 2004 NCAA Tournament suddenly had a legitimate Cinderella story.
The heroes were many. Snyder had 19 points, three steals and three assists. Okeson had 14 points and was 8-of-8 from the line. Pinkney had 13 points. Fazekas had 12 points and seven rebounds. Hill-Thomas had nine points, six rebounds and four assists.
The Pack, now riding an eight-game winning streak that seemingly came out of nowhere, suddenly had a date against No. 2 seeded Gonzaga two days later.