David Carter will freely admit he’s not a big fan of Senior Night.
“The guys get very emotional and they try too hard because they want to go out a winner,” the Nevada Wolf Pack head coach said this week. “It’s a tough night all around.”
This year might be the toughest of all for Carter’s Wolf Pack. Not only will it be Senior Night on Saturday (7:05 p.m.) when the Wolf Pack closes its regular season at Lawlor Events Center, the opponent will be the rival UNLV Rebels. This is just the second time in the 53-year-old Silver State rivalry that the Wolf Pack will close out its regular season home schedule with a game against the Rebels. The first time resulted in a 98-88 UNLV victory on Feb. 25, 1975, almost a decade before Lawlor was built in 1983.
Carter, who played point guard for the St. Mary’s Gaels from 1985-89, is well aware of the dangers of Senior Night from a player’s perspective.
“It’s very emotional and it’s hard to hold back the tears,” Carter said. “It’s hard playing that game. There’s so much emotion inside you.”
The Wolf Pack will honor seniors Deonte Burton, Jerry Evans and Ali Fall before the game. Carter said Fall, who currently comes off the bench, will join regular starters Burton and Evans in the starting lineup on Saturday.
“You’ll probably see some tears from me,” Burton said. “From what I’ve seen on Senior Night, players play off emotion. I’ll probably do that, too.”
The Wolf Pack, which won at Boise State 83-81 in double overtime on Wednesday night, lost on Senior Night a year ago, 75-62 (on March 6, 2013) to New Mexico. That loss was just one of eight to close out the season. This year the Pack goes into Senior Night with victories in two of its last three games.
“I imagine all those guys will be very emotional,” said Carter of Burton, Evans and Fall. “All those guys will play with a lot of passion. But I do anticipate that the team will rally behind them.”
The Wolf Pack clearly rallied behind Burton down in Las Vegas back on Jan. 8. The Pack beat the Rebels at Thomas & Mack Center that evening, 74-71, behind Burton’s 29 points. It was the Pack’s first victory over the Rebels since Nov. 26, 2005 (68-61) after eight consecutive losses.
“Beating UNLV in Las Vegas was something I always wanted to do,” Evans said. “That is my favorite moment since I’ve been here.”
The Wolf Pack beat the Rebels thanks to a 22-2 run over the final 3:43 of the first half and first 3:27 of the second half, turning a 34-23 deficit into a 45-36 lead. Center A.J. West had 11 points and nine rebounds in just 20 minutes, Michael Perez added 18 points, the Pack turned the ball over just six times and held UNLV to 35 percent shooting.
“The key to that game was that we answered every run UNLV had,” Carter said.
The Wolf Pack, now 14-16 overall and tied for fourth in the Mountain West with Boise State at 9-8, will be looking for its first two-game sweep in one season over UNLV since it beat the Rebels twice a month apart in January and February of 1995. This is the 28th season that the Wolf Pack has played UNLV twice in one year and the Pack has earned just three sweeps (1961-62, 1965-66 and 1994-95) in the rivalry.
“We’ll just have to make it four in 28,” Carter said.
There will be more than just emotions and rivalry bragging rights on the line on Saturday night. UNLV (19-11, 10-7) needs a victory to finish third in the Mountain West while the Wolf Pack is hoping to finish in the top five in the league and get a first-round bye in the conference tournament next week (March 12-15) in Las Vegas. New Mexico (15-2), San Diego State (15-2) and UNLV (10-7) have clinched a top five spot, leaving the Wolf Pack (9-8), Boise State (9-8), Wyoming (8-9) and Fresno State (8-9) to compete for the other two spots. Boise State is at Air Force on Saturday while Colorado State is at Wyoming, New Mexico is at San Diego State (with the conference title on the line) and Fresno State is at San Jose State.
UNLV lost to San Diego State on Wednesday night 73-64 on their own Senior Night.
The Rebels, which lost starters Anthony Bennett, Anthony Marshall, Mike Moser and Katin Reinhardt off of last year’s 25-10 team, is led by Bryce Dejean-Jones (13.4 points a game), Khem Birch (11.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.8 blocks), Roscoe Smith (11.0 points, 1.0 rebounds), Kevin Olekaibe (10.6 points) and Deville Smith (9.6 points).
Smith, who missed the San Diego State game because of a concussion, had 13 points and 15 rebounds against the Pack in January while Birch had 12 points, seven rebounds and two blocks and Dejean-Jones had 15 points.
The Rebels played well against San Diego State despite playing without Roscoe Smith and getting sub-par performances from point guard Deville Smith (seven turnovers, 0-for-5 from the floor for two points) and Dejean-Jones (7 points, 1-for-7 from the floor). Birch had 16 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks against San Diego State.
UNLV led San Diego State 62-61 and then scored just two points in the final 3:24.
“They were a little down the last time we played them,” Carter said. “We’ll see a different team this time.”
Carter said the Rebels might have an advantage in Saturday’s rematch because of what happened in early January at Thomas & Mack Center against the Wolf Pack. The game will also be the Wolf Pack’s third in the last seven days.
“The team that loses the first game always is a little more motivated in the second game,” Carter said.
Saturday’s game will be just the fifth between the Wolf Pack and Rebels in the month of March since the rivalry began in 1961-62. The Rebels have won the first four, including last year.
The Wolf Pack, though, has played very well the last three games after a shocking loss to San Jose State 66-64 at home on Feb. 18. They beat Air Force and Boise State on the road and held a 14-point first-half lead against New Mexico at home last Sunday before falling by 14. The opportunity to go into the conference tournament at Las Vegas after sweeping the Rebels in the regular season is exactly the type of Lawlor farewell the three seniors have been dreaming about.
“Yeah, we’ve talked about this game all year,” Evans said with a smile. “I think we’ve talked about it at least once a week. We’re going to try to do something special.”
Evans said he couldn’t imagine a more dramatic way to go out on Senior Night than to beat UNLV.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said.