The dog days of the offseason are nigh. For reasons we can’t quite understand, instead of providing informative offseason content in his spare time, Kyle will have Offseason Movie Nights with old games he finds on the Internet. So dim the lights, throw a bag of popcorn in the microwave and get comfortable.
Fair warning: There will be spoilers.
Nevada’s NCAA Tournament bout against Cincinnati started with a tweet.
So, they (@DuBoisUC) deleted the Tweet advertising Cincinnati Sweet 16 shirts before today's game against @EricPMusselman— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) March 19, 2018
and @NevadaHoops? Oh, if only somebody had taken a screen shot... pic.twitter.com/hfCek8GPct
Hours before the 2 seed Bearcats and 7 seed Wolf Pack squared off in the second round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, a Cincinnati bookstore’s employee was feeling bold. On paper, this employee’s confidence was warranted: The Bearcats boasted the nation’s second-best defense, two all-American Conference First Team selections and a school-record 31 wins.
Nevertheless, the shirt became prime bulletin board material for Nevada head coach Eric Musselman, who informed his players of its existence. Predictably, Nevada’s players didn’t appreciate it. Forward Jordan Caroline sent the screenshot to his mom, and later recalled her reaction in Chris Murray’s postgame column for the Reno Gazette-Journal:
“[The shirt] gave us a lot of motivation,” Caroline said. “I’m sure it didn’t show at the start of the game, but it was there. I saw it online and I sent to my mom and she was upset. She’s probably our biggest fan. She said, ‘Show them what the Wolf Pack is made of.’”
In order to show the Bearcats what they were made of, Nevada would have to play a near-flawless game. Cincinnati had a 42 percent chance of reaching the Final Four and 12/1 odds of winning the National Championship, but the South Region wasn’t kind to analytics. 13 seed Buffalo trounced a Deandre Ayton-led Arizona team. Loyola kickstarted its Final Four run by upsetting Miami and Tennessee on buzzer-beaters. And, most importantly, No. 16 UMBC made history by demolishing top-seeded Virginia by 20 points.
These upsets opened up the South for either Cincinnati or Nevada to make a deep tournament run. Analytics favored the former; before tipoff, Mick Cronin’s team had an 86.4 percent win probability and were favored by 4.5 points.
For a while, Cincinnati’s premature Sweet Sixteen shirt release was prophetic. Nevada looked awful.
The Wolf Pack settled for contested jumpers and questionable mid-range looks early in the shot clock. Cincinnati’s defense was as stout as advertised: The Bearcats held the Wolf Pack scoreless for nearly three minutes to open the game. Most alarmingly, however, Nevada’s players looked flat, perhaps still reeling from their furious 17-point comeback to force overtime against Texas two days prior.
The Bearcats scored on their first eight possessions and jumped out to an 18-4 lead. In the same timespan, Nevada made two field goals and burned two timeouts.
Under normal circumstances, teams staring down early deficits turn to their bench to provide a spark. But Nevada was neither willing nor able to play its reserves. Starting point guard Lindsey Drew ruptured his Achilles’ on a fluky, half-ending heave against Boise State, Musselman dismissed seldom-used graduate transfer Darien Williams in January, and starter Caleb Martin was playing through a Lisfranc sprain that should have ended his season. This left the Wolf Pack with senior Elijah Foster and sophomore Josh Hall, who Musselman nicknamed “Super Sub.”
When Caleb Martin picked up his second foul with 12:49 to play, Musselman arrived at an unenviable dilemma: keep the Mountain West Player of the Year in the game, hoping he could return to form, or bench him, preserving him for a game that might not get any closer. Musselman chose the latter.
Nevada’s first half sans Caleb Martin wasn’t pretty, but the team had a pulse.
Caleb’s twin brother Cody, Jordan Caroline, and Josh Hall chipped away at Cincinnati’s lead. To the chagrin of Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin, a 16-6 Wolf Pack run cut Cincinnati’s lead to seven with 5:52 to play. But the Bearcats still had a considerable cushion from their hot start.
Even though his team was firmly in the driver’s seat, Cronin’s exasperation grew as Tre Scott, Jarron Cumberland, Gary “Problem” Clark and Jacob Evans picked up two fouls of their own. Although Cincinnati had a deeper bench, getting several Bearcat starters into foul trouble was a little victory for Nevada.
Yet Nevada couldn’t catch a break. The Wolf Pack couldn’t capitalize at the charity stripe, missing five crucial free throws. Cincinnati dominated the battle of the boards, 22-12, which prevented Nevada’s comeback attempts from becoming too serious. And even inserting Caleb Martin back in the game with five minutes to play didn’t provide the offensive spark Musselman hoped; Cincinnati’s lead ballooned back to double-digits.
All things considered, the Wolf Pack were fortunate to be trailing by only 12 at halftime. Unfortunately, Cincinnati controlled the game, and the Bearcats rarely blew halftime leads — they were 26-1 when leading at half.
Up until that point, no team in NCAA Tournament history won back-to-back games after trailing by more than nine points at intermission.
The 20-minute intermission didn’t cool off the Bearcats.
Before Nevada could react, Cincinnati scored five points in under a minute, matching Texas’s lead from the previous round. If Nevada was going to do the unthinkable, then it’d have to overcome another 17-point deficit against a much better team. Nevada had no answer for a red-hot Cumberland, nor for the bruising size of Kyle Washington — the latter happily obliged to score against the Martin twins, his former teammates at North Carolina State.
As if Cincinnati’s scoring wasn’t distressing enough, the Wolf Pack had quickly racked up fouls. In a rather forgettable defensive possession, Kendall Stephens fouled Washington with four seconds on the shot clock, then Hallice Cooke picked up two consecutive fouls on the ensuing inbounds.
A minute later, Cody Martin went coast-to-coast for a layup, but earned a technical foul after jawing with a referee. Justin Jenifer hit one of two free throws, extending Cincinnati’s lead to 19.
Frustration ensued. The Wolf Pack unraveled on each possession. Flabbergasted about Cody Martin’s tech, Musselman earned one of his own for questioning a referee during the under-16 timeout. Trailing by 22 points with 11:34 left, Nevada looked dead in the water.
Then the Bearcats became greedy. Instead of slowing the game down — something they executed well while building their massive lead — several players wanted to make a back-breaking three. To wit: Cumberland hoisted an NBA-range three with 16 seconds left on the shot clock. It seems weird saying this in hindsight, but this shot could have been the dagger:
Only the 2012 BYU Cougars had come back from a larger deficit in the NCAA Tournament, but the Cougars’ 25-point comeback took 19 minutes. Nevada didn’t have time on its side, so it turned up the intensity. As Nevada’s offense struggled to show signs of life, Musselman switched the defense to a full-court, man-to-man trap. Suddenly, the Wolf Pack played like they were down two, not 20.
Cody Martin hit a midrange jumper on the next possession, then Stephens hit a three right as a chyron displaying Nevada’s three-point woes appeared onscreen.
Puzzlingly, Cincinnati responded by hoisting more threes. Cane Broome’s attempt in the corner fell short, then Hall bullied his way for a rebound. He found Caleb Martin, who weaved into the lane and scored. It didn’t look like much, but the Wolf Pack rattled off a 10-0 run in under two minutes. Cronin called timeout.
Nevada’s comeback could have ended on the next possession. In an effort to force a five-second violation, all five Wolf Pack players were on their side of the court. To their credit, Clark and Cumberland nearly broke Nevada’s press by themselves: Clark returned the inbound to Cumberland, who heaved it across the timeline for a now wide-open Clark, who only had Caleb Martin to beat. Had Clark seen Washington lingering alone underneath Cincinnati’s basket, the Bearcats would’ve snapped Nevada’s 10-0 run.
Instead, Caleb Martin held his ground, smothered Clark’s shot, then forced the Bearcats to improvise with a 20-second shot clock. Naturally, Cody Martin retrieved Cumberland’s miss, drove coast-to-coast and flipped a finger-roll over... Cumberland.
Cody finished the three-point play. For the first time in 15 minutes, Nevada trailed by single digits.
But Nevada’s work was far from finished. Cincinnati snapped out of its funk by scoring on three straight possessions. The problem for the Bearcats, however, was that Nevada didn’t keel over. Nevada’s heroes from the first half — Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline and Josh Hall — retaliated.
Remember how the Bearcats would be in the bonus on Nevada’s next foul? While Wolf Pack played clean basketball, the Bearcats got sloppy as their seemingly insurmountable lead dissolved. Leading scorers Jacob Evans (19), Cumberland (17) and Clark (11) picked up their third fouls. Cronin knew he needed Cumberland and Evans — two of his best shooters — in the event Nevada made it a one- or two-possession game.
Then, with 5:25 to go, Cumberland picked up his fourth foul.
Cronin faced a dilemma. On one hand: Cincinnati was up eight with two timeouts and a deeper bench. Sitting Cumberland would likely bring in Jenifer, who had a quiet game up until that point, but was still playing mistake-free basketball. Not only that, Nevada still couldn’t quite contain Clark and Washington — taking Cumberland out wouldn’t leave the Bearcats empty-handed.
On the other hand: Cumberland’s size disrupted Nevada’s backcourt. The sophomore had the hot hand: Cumberland scored a career-high 27 points in the first round, and picked up right where he left off with 17 against Nevada. And, moments after picking up his fourth foul, he put pressure on Cronin, demanding to stay in the game.
Cronin obliged, and Cumberland fouled out 81 seconds later. Between his fourth and fifth fouls, Cumberland recorded one rebound, made one deflection and gave up a layup to Hall.
apropos of nothing, here is the most important sequence of nevada's 22-point comeback over cincinnati: pic.twitter.com/SF8ysAyFRv— Kyle Cajero (@kylecajero) July 27, 2018
Seizing its opportunity, the Wolf Pack pounced on a Cumberland-less lineup. On the following play, Cody Martin drew contact on a layup over Cumberland’s replacement, Trevor Moore. All of a sudden, the team with a 0.1 percent chance of winning found itself in a one-possession game. Then the game stalled.
Cincinnati’s offense couldn’t get anything going against Nevada’s defense, which still trapped, double-teamed and harassed the Bearcats into more empty possessions. Cincinnati’s defense responded by finally putting the clamps on the Wolf Pack offense, which went scoreless for almost two minutes after Cody’s and-one. When Broome’s two free throws put Cincinnati up five with 2:39 to play, it looked like it had weathered the storm.
Did the Wolf Pack have enough in the tank for one more surge?
Strangely enough, Broome kept Nevada’s hopes alive by careening into Cody Martin on a dribble handoff.
Offensive foul, Wolf Pack ball. My words cannot do their final three possessions justice — each of which was more clutch and more legendary than the last.
nevada isn't even my team, but i get chills watching this: pic.twitter.com/4FNyt6sjBS— Kyle Cajero (@kylecajero) July 28, 2018
WELCOME TO MARCH, NEVADA!— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 19, 2018
Not a bad time for the first lead of the night. pic.twitter.com/kl1cKROKpJ
Nevada’s comeback tied for the second-biggest deficit overcome in NCAA Tournament history. The win probability chart was so bonkers that it became a meme — thanks to Yale Sport’s Group President Luke Benz tweeting this stunning graph:
Months later, Cronin insisted he moved on from the loss, but Nevada’s 22-point comeback was a game for the ages. And even though the Wolf Pack would fall to Loyola in the Sweet Sixteen, at least their appearance came with a commemorative t-shirt.
Find the full game here.