RENO, Nev. — There were 18 3-point baskets made in the first half Wednesday night at the Lawlor Events Center, nine by each team.
Yet the biggest shot was absorbed by Milik Yarbrough.
Illinois State's junior forward, who had scored 14 points in the first half while going 4 of 5 from outside the arc, took a knee to his chin and was held out the rest of the way because of concussion symptoms. After that, it was an uphill battle for the Redbirds.
Nevada showed it could become a top-25 team next week as the unbeaten Wolf Pack pulled away in the second half to beat the Redbirds, 98-68, in a Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge game before a crowd of 8,293.
“Him (Yarbrough) going down really changes our game plan and when you play a team like this it really makes it tough,” said ISU coach Dan Muller. “Without sounding like I'm happy about losing by 30, there actually were a lot of good things. We were outmanned and had some lineups in there that makes it tough, but I thought a lot of guys kept playing.”
ISU, which dropped to 3-4, was led by Phil Fayne's 15 points. Keyshawn Evans added 13 points.
Nevada (7-0), which nearly cracked the Associated Press Top 25 rankings this week, was paced by forward Caleb Martin with 21 points while forward Jordan Caroline had 20 and guard Kendall Stephens 19. The long, veteran and athletic Wolf Pack sank 14 of 29 3-pointers and enjoyed a 42-24 rebounding advantage.
“Regardless whether we're a man down or not, we still have to go out there and fight and I thought we did that in the second half,” said Evans. “We did not rebound well enough as a whole again, but we'll go back and see what we did right and did wrong and get ready for the next one.”
ISU entertains Tulsa at 3 p.m. Saturday at Redbird Arena. The Redbirds beat the Golden Hurricane, 84-68, on Nov. 19 in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic at Myrtle Beach.
Two 3-pointers by Yarbrough and another by Evans gave ISU a 9-0 lead to start the game. It was encouraging for the Redbirds to see Yarbrough ready after he played only 14 minutes in an overtime loss to Charleston Southern on Saturday.
But the 3-point parade was only just beginning.
Stephens sank 5 of 10 from outside the arc while Caleb Martin went 4 of 5 in the first half. Still, ISU was hanging in with the Wolf Pack until Yarbrough was forced to the bench with the Redbirds trailing 34-30 with seven minutes left until halftime.
Nevada closed the half on a 14-3 run as Caroline used his brute strength to maneuver inside for three baskets. Taylor Bruninga's 3-pointer was ISU's only basket in the last 6:30 as the Redbirds trailed, 51-36, at the break.
Fayne also didn't play the last 2:21 after picking up his third foul.
“We gave up some open looks, but they made some contested shots,” said Muller. “Their speed bothered us in transition a couple times, and we went zone and they hit some guys. I told the team we want to force contested 3s. We can't beat them in the paint. I was hoping they wouldn't make them all and they did, especially in the first half.”
The Redbirds looked to go inside to Fayne — who had plenty of family and friends in the stands that made the two-hour drive from his home in Elk Grove, Calif. — more in the second half and it paid off. They kept it close for a while as Fayne scored eight points to cut the deficit to 58-46 with 14:52 left.
But when Fayne got his fourth foul with 12:18 left, it was more than ISU could handle. The 6-foot-7, 235-pound Caroline, who played as a freshman at Southern Illinois before transferring, muscled his way inside at will.
“We came out in the second half and battled and then Phil gets in foul trouble. We didn't lay down even after that,” said Muller. “Phil only played seven or eight minutes in the second half, and that makes it tough against what I believe is one of the top 20 or 25 teams in the country. If they shoot it like that they won't lose here at home. They're really good and talented.”
Guard Jerron Martin, a graduate transfer, did his best to keep ISU in the game. He scored five of his season-high seven points in the second half and looked much more active than he has this season.
“Today I wanted to be more of a spark for the team and do the things Coach Muller expects me to do and not force too much,” said Martin. “I've been in my own thing a little bit, but I'm getting more comfortable with what I do and my role on this team.”
Muller said Yarbrough wanted to go back in the game and was mad that he couldn't. The ISU coach said Yarbrough will be evaluated when the team returns home Thursday before his status for Saturday's game can be determined.
“Milik had a couple great days of practice and obviously made the shots which he hasn't every night. I thought he was going to play really well,” said Muller. “Milik, as we've said, is a difference maker for us and when you play teams like this or South Carolina or Tulsa or Boise State or teams with this talent level, Milik makes things easier for everyone.”