LAS VEGAS -- When Deonte Burton rose from the floor rubbing and shifting his jaw back and forth to make sure it was still in place, Nevada coach David Carter could only hope the elbow that floored Burton not only awakened the conference player of the year but his entire squad as well.
That's exactly what happened for the top-seeded Wolf Pack.
Burton scored 15 of his 16 points in the second half and Nevada overcame a horrid first half offensively for a 54-44 win over San Jose State in the Western Athletic Conference quarterfinals on Thursday night.
Immediately after getting dropped to the floor by the elbow of San Jose State's Stephon Smith, Burton responded with eight straight points, and awakened a slumbering Nevada offense that tied a WAC tournament record by scoring just 13 first-half points.
"I just tried to do everything I could to give us some energy. We lacked that," Burton said. "Seeing the buckets go in, you get a vibe about you and it just energizes the whole team. I think (getting elbowed) definitely woke me up."
Nevada (26-5) lost just once in conference play, but looked anything but a conference champion for the first 35 minutes. On top of the awful first-half performance offensively, the Wolf Pack got lax on defense to open the second half and trailed 28-19 after just five minutes. A minute later Burton got decked and everything changed.
"I always felt like we had a run," Nevada coach David Carter said. "It was almost like it was the tip of the iceberg of when it was going to come."
Nevada will face either Utah State or Louisiana Tech in the semifinals on Friday night.
After a few minutes of officials conferring, Smith was issued a flagrant foul for his elbow. Burton hit the two free throws, then followed up with a challenged 3-pointer on the ensuing possession. After Carter scored for the Spartans, Burton hit another 3 to cap his own personal eight-point run to pull the Wolf Pack within one. Olek Czyz scored on Nevada's next possession to take its first lead since briefly leading 13-12 late in the first half.
The Wolf Pack run didn't stop. Burton added a free throw, Czyz scored twice more and Dario Hunt's driving basket gave Nevada a 38-30 lead with 9:20 left. The lead eventually reached 41-32, but instead of putting away the Spartans, Nevada's three straight sloppy turnovers led to seven unanswered points by San Jose State, the final two on a floater by Keith Shamburger that pulled the Spartans within 41-39.
Jerry Evans, Jr. answered with a tip-in for Nevada, two more Burton free throws got the lead back to 45-39 with 5:18 left and Evans put away the Spartans with a 3 from the wing and a nine-point lead with 4:30 left.
Evans and Czyz both added 10 points for the Wolf Pack.
"I think we started off really lazy, I'd say," Evans said. "We didn't come out the same intensity we did the second half. Offensively, I feel like we rushed everything."
Will Carter led San Jose State (9-22) with 18 points, but the Spartans missed their chance to really put pressure on the favored Wolf Pack with their own offensive problems in the first half. Nevada matched the 13 points scored by Tulsa against UTEP in 2003. And while eight turnovers didn't help, the Wolf Pack simply missed shots. Burton was 0 of 7 including an airballed 3-pointer. Second-leading scorer Malik Story wasn't much better, hitting 1 of 7.
The only reason it wasn't a rout at halftime was San Jose State's equally poor shooting effort. The Spartans were 7 of 25 and also committed seven turnovers. SJSU didn't break the 10-point barrier until nearly 14 minutes of the half elapsed. It took Nevada nearly two more minutes to reach double figures.
"To me, the most significant difference was Burton didn't make a lot of shots in the game but he made a couple big ones in the second half with a guy right up in him," San Jose State coach George Nessman said. "And he's known to do that. And he made two (3-pointers) in that run I thought really got it going, and Story made a couple, too. They showed their composure as a team in the second half."
Follow Tim Booth on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ByTimBooth