SALT LAKE CITY — Eric Musselman observes other coaches bench players when they aren’t shooting well. He, instead, tells his stars to just shoot more.
Caleb Martin scored a career-high 33 points and Jordan Caroline added 17 to lead No. 6 Nevada over Utah 86-71 on Saturday.
“Coach gives us so much confidence,” Martin said. “I know how good a shooter I am capable of being. I just had to shoot myself out of it and get to the rim a couple times.”
Along with his signature glides to the hoop, Martin emerged from a shooting slump (10 for 43 from beyond the arc the prior four games) in a big way with six 3-pointers to go along with seven assists and four steals.
Nevada, which forced Utah into 18 turnovers, remained just one of five undefeated NCAA Division I teams.
Jazz Johnson went 4 for 4 on 3s as the Wolf Pack made 12 and shot 46 percent from long range. Coming into the game, the Wolf Pack had made just 27 of their last 112 3-point attempts.
“I’m not worried about the shooting. I just know we do not lose when we have 200 passes — it hasn’t happened in three years here,” Musselman said of the way ball movement produces open shots.
Sedrick Barefield countered with a season-best 33 points for the Utes (6-6), who couldn’t bounce back from Nevada’s big run early in the second half. Donnie Tillman had 13 points and 10 rebounds for Utah, which lost for the first time at home this season.
Trailing by double-digits most of the second half, Utah drew within 75-66 with 4:17 to play on Charles Jones, Jr.’s 3-pointer.
But Martin made a couple more baskets and Nevada grabbed three timely offensive rebounds to clinch the game.
Utah had height to contend with the formidable Wolf Pack frontline, but the Utes couldn’t stay with the Nevada’s athletes on drives to the hoop and scrambles for loose balls.
After a back-and-forth first half, the Wolf Pack ratcheted up the pressure and turned a 38-37 edge into an 11-point lead.
“We put more pressure on the ball and tried to be more active, get in the lanes a bit more and I think it showed. We got some turnovers and it sparked us,” Caroline said.
The Nevada defense forced Utah into five turnovers on their first six possessions of the second half. Caleb Martin sparked the 13-3 run with an off-balance 3-pointer and capped it with an assist to Caroline to make it 51-40.
“I thought we were lackadaisical at the start of the second half,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “We fueled their fire to start the second half by turning the ball over.”
The Wolf Pack all say they are a second-half team and early deficits don’t bother them. They take their cue from Caleb Martin.
“I just become a different player in the second half. I know I have to produce and I get a real fire under me. We just do whatever it takes in the second half to win the game,” Martin said.
Neither team was happy with how tight the officials called any contact and it finally boiled over when Cody Martin got a technical foul with 13:57 left. Trey Porter, who had nine points, fouled out with 9:30 to play and Cody Martin missed significant time with foul trouble.
The win marked the best start since Nevada became a Division I school in 1969 and the only time the Wolf Pack has completed non-conference play with an unblemished record.
Nevada: The Wolf Pack know they can’t consistently dig themselves holes at the start of games. They also struggle in the half-court when teams take away their potent transition prowess. Good 3-point shooting bailed them out against Utah, but they’ll need better offense to match their consistent defensive pressure because they’ve shown the long-range shots aren’t always going to be falling.
Utah: Despite the loss, the Utes played with more toughness than they have showed in their uneven start to the season. “That was a really physical game, so I’m proud of how we fought,” Barefield said.
Utah outrebounded Nevada, 39-30, and didn’t give up too many baskets, except off turnovers. Barefield, who has come off the bench the last three games, was nearly unstoppable but the Utes need more offensive firepower around him to make a run in the Pac-12.
Nevada: Hosts Utah State on Wednesday to open MWC play.
Utah: Visits No. 17 Arizona State on Thursday.