Fresno State fell into the trap at New Mexico on Dec. 28. It leaped. It lunged. Defending the Lobos – guard Elijah Brown in particular – put the Bulldogs into position to foul, and foul they did, a lot. They sent New Mexico to the line 34 times, and the Lobos hit 22 more free throws and won the game by five.
The Bulldogs needed to make some adjustments in the rematch on Saturday at Save Mart Center and they did, mostly in how they defended shooters and with the discipline they brought to their assignments. That played big in a 71-61 victory that kept Fresno State in contention for a top-five seed and first-round bye at the Mountain West Conference tournament.
Fresno State had 12 steals in its victory over New Mexico, four by Cullen Russo. The 12 steals matched a season-high in conference games – the Bulldogs also had 12 in victories over Colorado State and Air Force.
Brown, who had averaged 23.6 points over the past seven games and was leading the conference in free-throw attempts in conference play, was held to 11 points.
He was 4 of 12, 1 of 6 from behind the 3-point arc and only 2 of 3 at the free-throw line. In the first matchup, Brown was 14 of 14 at the line in scoring 19 points.
Coach Rodney Terry started Deshon Taylor on Brown and used the length of 6-foot-7 Paul Watson against him, as well.
“This game was made a lot easier on myself, definitely because of game film,” Watson said. “I got to sit back and learn from a lot of mistakes that were made in the last game at their place, falling into traps for fouls and things like that.”
Watson called Brown “a really good player. He knows how to use his body to create contact or sell a certain foul, so I would definitely say that last game was a learning tool, and (I) tried to stay out of foul trouble.”
It was not just Brown. New Mexico was without forward Tim Williams, who missed a fifth consecutive game with a stress reaction in his left foot. But the Lobos were 3-1 without their second-leading scorer, and they all know the value of a foul shot.
It was really cool to see everybody out there. It was nice to have the whole student body behind us, being loud and bringing us energy. It would be nice to have that each and every night. They make a huge difference whether they know it or not.
Fresno State forward Paul Watson, on the student section
“When guys took jump shots, we wanted to stay on the ground and stay as tall as we can and just contest to make the shot as difficult as possible,” point guard Jaron Hopkins said. “I think we did a good job of making every shot difficult without getting our hand into arms or anything like that.”
New Mexico had scored 25.9 percent of its points from the foul line, the third-highest percentage in the nation, and it was just a tick or three from the top spot.
Texas Southern had scored 26.2 percent of its points on free throws, SIU Edwardsville 26.0 percent.
In the first matchup with Fresno State, the Lobos scored 37.2 percent of their points at the line. In the second, just 19.7 percent. They were 12 of 17 and the two times they had fewer foul shots this season both were losses, at Dayton (13) and at Arizona (16).
That’s a big chunk of offense that was not there, and the Bulldogs made it pay off when getting away from the Lobos in the final 11 minutes.
“We just knew we had to come out and play as hard as we can – as smart as we can, as well – because this is a team that lives on the foul line,” Hopkins said. “I think we didn’t foul them as much and we executed to the best of our ability.”
The game was tight most of the way – the largest lead for either team with 11 minutes to go was just four points. To that point the score had been tied 10 times and the lead had changed hands 10 times. Momentum was a fleeting thing.
But up five, the Bulldogs (16-11, 8-7 in the MW) took a 49-41 lead with 11 minutes remaining on an open 3-pointer by Jahmel Taylor off an assist by Hopkins.
1,303 career points for Paul Watson, moving him into 18th place on the Bulldogs’ all-time list just past Chris Herren (1,297 from 1996-99). Next up is Tyler Johnson (1,346 from 2011-14).
Down the stretch, they aggressively got to the rim. Deshon Taylor, Hopkins and Watson got layups, dunks or foul shots. They made good use of Bryson Williams and Terrell Carter II down low. Deshon Taylor and Hopkins each finished with 15 points. Williams, the freshman from Roosevelt High, had his first career double double with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
New Mexico closed its deficit to three with 5:21 to go, but made just 2 of its last 9 shots and 1 of its last 7. It also turned the ball over three times, and the impact it could make at the free-throw line was negligible.
The 61 points were the fewest for the Lobos in conference play and their 19 turnovers the most.
“I thought our guys showed a lot of grit in the second half in terms of putting some consecutive stops together,” Terry said. “We were big on the glass. We tried to have a physical presence in the paint and I thought our guys really dug down defensively with our rotations the way we need to rotate. I thought they did a nice job.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT SAN DIEGO STATE
- Wednesday: 8 p.m. at Viejas Arena (12,414)
- Records: Bulldogs 16-11, 8-7 Mountain West; Aztecs 16-10, 8-6
- TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940)
- Notable: The Aztecs have won three in a row and five of six and are coming off a 77-64 victory over UNLV on Sunday at Viejas. Malik Pope led San Diego State with 17 points and nine rebounds in its win over the Rebels and Jeremy Hemsley and Matt Shrigley added 16 each. Trey Kell scored only six points, but he had 22 when San Diego State beat the Bulldogs 70-67 at Save Mart Center on Feb. 4, all in the second half. Kell was 0 of 2 in the first half, 7 of 11 in the second.