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Defense Leads Nevada to Upset Win

March 19, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — A guy named Okafor was expected to make noise in the NCAA tournament.

But Okeson?

Connecticut's Emeka Okafor might stick around longer, but Todd Okeson is the gamer of a guard who helped lead Nevada to a 72-66 upset of Michigan State, with plenty of help from Kirk Snyder, his stunningly athletic teammate.

Michigan State (18-12) was 0-9 against ranked teams and 1-8 against teams that made the NCAA tournament.

Make that 1-9 after the 10th-seeded Wolf Pack's victory over the seventh-seeded Spartans in a first-round game in front of 15,827 at KeyArena.

It was the first NCAA tournament victory for Nevada (24-8), which had played in the tournament only twice before, in 1984 and '85.

Michigan State led by as many as 16 points and led by 10 with nine minutes left.

Then Okeson made a three-point basket, and Nevada turned up the defense.

Michigan State didn't score a field goal from the time of Tim Bograkos' basket with 7:34 left until Maurice Ager's three-point basket with 20 seconds left.

"We got the ball inside and just missed shots and missed layups," Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said.

"They deserved to win, and yet as bad as Snyder hurt us, he was six of 17."

Snyder, a 6-foot-6 guard who was the Western Athletic Conference player of the year, scored 19 points, including three three-point baskets. Okeson scored 14, with two three-point baskets.

But it was Okeson's steal with Nevada trailing, 63-62, with 3 1/2 minutes left that was one of the most crucial plays.

"That's Todd. That was huge," Coach Trent Johnson said.

Okeson was guarding Ager on the perimeter when he dived into the passing lane to intercept a pass. He called timeout before he might have been called for traveling.

"That was kind of more like a fumble in football. I just dove out for the ball," Okeson said. "That was my first instinct [to call timeout]. I didn't want to get tied up. I didn't know which way the possession arrow was pointing."

After the timeout, Snyder had the ball on the wing and was seemingly well guarded.

But he stepped back and made a three-point basket for a 65-63 lead with 2:56 left.

Nevada made seven of eight free throws down the stretch and Michigan State struggled after Paul Davis fouled out with 2:40 left.

Davis led Michigan State with 16 points.

Snyder didn't have one of his best games -- he scored 29 in an upset of Kansas in December -- but he showed enough athleticism to make people want to see more.

On one play, he made a lightning-quick steal in the backcourt and soared high above the rim to try a tomahawk dunk but was fouled and missed.

"I see everything from him," Okeson said. "We have dunk contests in practice every day. This guy can do everything."

The game will go down as a first-round upset, but maybe it shouldn't.

On Nov. 25, Kansas defeated Michigan State, 81-74. On Dec. 21, Nevada beat the Jayhawks, 75-61.

"We didn't come here to show up for one game and be back in Reno," Nevada guard Garry Hill-Thomas said. "We came here for a purpose."

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