Sports

Pack turns fortunes, snags win from Mesa

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It takes a strong, well-oiled team to put together a 20-0 run in a college basketball game.But it may take an even more special team to rebound from being on the sour end of that run to somehow pull out a victory, just as the ThunderWolves did in claiming a 61-54 win over Mesa State Saturday night.

After a strong beginning in which the Pack took a 13-7 lead to start the game, Mesa uncorked that 20-0 run, keeping the ThunderWolves from scoring any points for nearly nine minutes and jumping out to a 27-13 lead.

But the ThunderWolves reacted with strength and focus, scoring the final four points of the first half and keeping Mesa State off the board for the final 2:30 of the half. It seemed like a small feat, but it trimmed the Mavericks’ halftime lead to ten and gave the Pack a small bit of momentum going into the second half, and preserving the air of confidence the Pack has had in recent weeks.

“Being down only by ten at half really was a blessing,” Pack head coach Patrick Eberhart said. “We knew if we stayed in the game defensively and made some stops, our shooters would be able to turn around and make their shots.”

The simple inside-out formula that has helped the Pack so well in putting together a 6-3 mark since Dec. 19 was all that was needed for success in the second half. Little by little, the Pack chipped away at the Mavericks’ lead, almost at a snail’s pace. Then, they coiled and attacked.

Trailing by six with 4:35 remaining, the Pack exacted control of the lane and the post, feeding the ball into big men Jake Trahern and Chris Childress to go on a 7-1 run that tied the game at 54 with 3:18 remaining.

From there, the Pack played incredibly disciplined, ball-control basketball while making stop after stop on the defensive end. Childress added another bucket at the 2:00 mark to give the Pack a 56-54 lead, their first lead since Mesa State took over following their 20-0 run.

An ensuing charge foul by Mesa’s Kurt Bangle gave the Pack the ball back, and they essentially sat on it. The ThunderWolves’ Brian Sewald took down a big offensive board following a missed shot at the 1:12 mark that reset the shot clock and gave the Pack another chance. Rome Smith responded, cooly sinking a contested three-poiner with 37 seconds left to give the Pack a five-point lead and essentially seal an amazing victory.

“I try to have a steady mindset in situations like that,” Smith said of his demeanor at the close of the game. “I try to not to be too high or too low, and it helps me to stay relaxed.”

Smith, who had been thrust to the point guard position following a season-ending injury to Jordan Surratt last week, flourished in his first full game running the point. Having to carry the load as the team’s key outside shooter while being the key ball-handler, as well, Smith had his most well-rounded night of his career. Smith turned in a game-high 20 points, seven rebounds, three assists and a steal. Smith attributed his success at the point against Mesa to working out with Surratt.

“Jordan is one of my best friends on the team, and he has been working out a lot with me,” Smith said. “We have been focusing on my ball-handling and it has really helped a lot.”

Eberhart said he is no longer as stressed to be without Surratt at the point with Smith as the fall back.

“It’s a big adjustment to ask somebody to handle the ball plus be your primary scorer,” Eberhart said. “Luckily, it only took him one game to make the adjustment, and it just shows how much a good player he is.”

Smith was just one cog in a machine that was well-oiled in the second half. Childress added 10 rebounds, Trahern came through with 17 points, and Sewald made three boards, all coming at key times, and converting on two big steals, as well. It all added together for the Pack’s fifth win in its last six games.

“This was a successful home stand for us, winning three out of four,” Eberhart said. “When you only lose to the 25th-ranked team in the country (Fort Lewis Friday), it leaves you with a good feeling.”

The Pack remain in the thick of the playoff race, rising to fourth place in the RMAC Western Division standings with a 6-7 conference record and 9-11 overall. It sets the stage for a pivotal four-game road trip that will make or break the Pack’s season. The first game on that road swing will take place Tuesday when they travel to Alamosa to take on Adams State.