The steal came 39 minutes and 25 seconds into the game, but Jaron Hopkins, the Fresno State point guard, had been sizing it up for some time.
Nevada, which came to Save Mart Center with the best record in the Mountain West and a RPI of 33, by far the best in the conference, had been very casual in getting the basketball to Marcus Marshall. Odd, because the 6-foot-3 guard is the leading scorer in the MW, and on Saturday against the Bulldogs had a good deal of success, hitting 8 of his first 12 shots on his way to a game-high 26 points. There had been some lazy handoffs and soft passes and Hopkins noticed. Lackadaisical, is the word he used.
He also knew a play was there and he made it at an opportune time in a 77-76 victory for the Bulldogs, who had been down by 10 in the second half before working their way back into it.
It’s basically just feel. I really take pride in it. It’s sitting in passing lanes, learning guys and how they’re dribbling the ball when they’re going to pass and not going to pass. Just feel for the game, really.
Fresno State point guard Jaron Hopkins
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With 35 seconds to play and the score tied, there was another one of those soft passes and Hopkins pounced on it, shot between Nevada forward Cameron Oliver and Marshall and swiped the ball, going in for a dunk that gave the Bulldogs a lead and after a few more anxious seconds, a win.
“I felt like they were real lackadaisical with the ball,” Hopkins said. “Maybe they were tired, I don’t know. I knew I could try to shoot that passing lane and stay solid at the same time so I shot the passing lane, took the gamble, and I took off with it and got the dunk.”
Hopkins, who is leading the conference with 2.3 steals per game, had only one in the game.
“Jaron has good instincts defensively,” coach Rodney Terry said. “Sometimes he tries too much and puts us in a bad positon when he doesn’t get it. He has to pick and choose and do it the right way and try to make good choices with it, but he’s a guy that’s capable of doing that.”
The Bulldogs, like Hopkins, did a lot right against the Wolf Pack (12-3, 1-1 in the MW).
The Bulldogs had 18 offensive rebounds against Nevada, leading to 18 second-chance points. Fresno State last had 18 offensive rebounds against a Division I opponent in a 77-62 loss to New Mexico on Jan. 2, 2016. Karachi Edo and Bryson Williams both had six offensive rebounds.
Fresno State (9-5, 1-1) attacked the basket, scoring 50 of their 77 points in the paint with another 13 coming at the free-throw line. With Oliver, the top shot blocker in the MW, in and out of the game due to foul trouble Hopkins and Watson scored on drives. Karachi Edo, Bryson Williams and Terrell Carter II worked the paint. When there was a miss, they got after it. Fresno State had 18 offensive rebounds with six by Edo and Williams, leading to 18 second-chance points.
At the defensive end, the Bulldogs forced 17 turnovers, leading to 21 points. They out-rebounded Nevada 43-39 and kept the Wolf Pack off the foul line – no team in the league had shot more free throws, but they got just 13 against the Bulldogs, who did a much better job keeping their feet moving and hands back. After Marshall had scored 11 of Nevada’s first 16 points in the second half, Terry inserted Cullen Russo into the game – the senior forward had been benched at the start after missing a team workout on Friday morning – and that allowed him to switch some longer bodies onto Marshall with the 6-7 Paul Watson and 6-5 Hopkins.
The result – Marshall hit only two of his final nine shots, the last one a desperation heave from about 30 feet as time expired.
“This is a really good shooting team,” Terry said. “Marshall is the leading scorer in our conference. We knew coming in that he could really shoot the basketball and he could shoot with range. Going in to this game, we knew these guys could shoot from the perimeter. They’re not just shot takers, they’re shot makers. We had to have as good of shooter defense that we have against these guys.”
Jaron has good instincts defensively. Sometimes he tries too much and puts us in a bad positon when he doesn’t get it. He has to pick and choose and do it the right away and try to make good choices with it, but he’s a guy that’s capable of doing that.
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry
The Bulldogs closed, down 10 with 11:09 to play. They got a lead, lost it. The score was tied four times and the lead changed hands twice in the final five minutes.
Then, there was another soft pass, a simple handoff between Oliver and Marshall that was very poorly handled by the Wolf Pack given the score and time remaining.
There, Hopkins entered the picture.
“It’s basically just feel,” Hopkins said. “I’ve been getting a lot of steals since high school. I really take pride in it. It’s sitting in passing lanes, learning guys and how they’re dribbling the ball when they’re going to pass and not going to pass. Just feel for the game, really.
“We know those (opportunities) are going to come throughout the game, so I just pick and choose when and when not to and try to stay as solid as possible.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. WYOMING
- Wednesday: 7 p.m. at Save Mart Center
- Records: Bulldogs 9-5, 1-1 Mountain West; Cowboys 11-4, 1-1 after losing to UNLV 81-75 on Saturday afternoon
- Webcast/radio: Mountain West Network (themwc.com)/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)