Fresno State on Tuesday won its fourth game in a row, 74-67 at Boise State, to clinch a first-round bye in the Mountain West Tournament and certify its credentials as an ornery opponent next week in Las Vegas.
And there is a common thread running through each of those vicotries. A string, more aptly, said senior forward Paul Watson; thicker, stronger, more resilient. It’s defense, the Bulldogs breaking new ground there with each win in another late-season run.
Guys are moving on a string right now and it’s all starting to click; it’s all starting to come together. It’s really good for us right now.
Fresno State forward Paul Watson
Entering Tuesday, Fresno State held three conference opponents in a row to fewer than .900 points per possession, with San Jose State at .831, New Mexico at .884 and San Diego State at .859, which never had happened since the Bulldogs joined the Mountain West.
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Fresno State was solid early and when it mattered most in taking down the Broncos, who were third in the conference in scoring at 76.7 points per game and averaging 80.4 over their past five games.
Fresno State forced 15 turnovers, including 11 steals. In the first half, the Broncos were at .813 points per possession, and in the second half, they were below that before putting together a run that stalled inside of seven minutes to play.
Boise State did not have a starter score even eight points, that group accounting for only six of its 23 baskets and going a combined 6 of 21 (28.6 percent). The Broncos’ Chandler Hutchison, third in the conference in scoring at 17.7 points per game, scored a season-low sevenwhile getting just six shots.
“The guys, we’re moving as a group,” Watson said. “It’s not like when we were just getting going and a guy might have missed a certain assignment or something like that. Guys are moving on a string right now and it’s all starting to click; it’s all starting to come together.”
Deshon Taylor scored a game-high 26 points to lead the Bulldogs, hitting 7 of 11 shots including 4 of 4 at the 3-point line. Taylor has scored 20 or more points five times in 11 games since entering the starting lineup and is averaging 20.3 points in those games.
The Bulldogs close the regular season Saturday at Save Mart Center against UNLV, which is in last place in the conference, 10th of 11 in scoring and last in field-goal percentage.
With a win over the Rebels and a Boise State loss at Air Force, Fresno State (18-11, 10-7) will clinch the No. 3 seed for the Mountain West Tournament.
But whether a No. 3 or a No. 4 seed, the Bulldogs are 5-1against the teams currently ahead of them in the standings – they split the season series with 13-4 Colorado State and swept 12-4 Nevada and 11-6 Boise State.
And the Bulldogs believe they are just starting. The rotations can be tighter. The ball screen defense can be better. They can finish possessions with stronger blockouts, though it is worth noting the Broncos, one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the conference, had only five offensive rebounds and five second-chance points.
“Following the defensive game plan was the difference,” Watson said. “Everybody is really focused right now. Everybody has two feet in right now.”
That showed in the second half when the Broncos made a run, cutting a deficit that reached 14 points to 55-52 with 7:43 remaining.
We hung in there and battled back to have some chances in the second half, but they just kind of physically dominated us.
Boise State coach Leon Rice
Coach Rodney Terry then called a timeout, which righted the Bulldogs. The Broncos’ next trip ended with a missed jump shot, then Watson blocked a shot by Hutchison. Boise State whiffed on its next possession, missing a shot in the lane, and Terrell Carter II followed with a blocked shot on Marcus Dickinson.
“We hung in there and battled back to have some chances in the second half, but they just kind of physically dominated us,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said. “Especially in that first half, it was telltale; nine turnovers and they just take the ball from you.”
The Broncos, who were at .985 points per possession for the game, missed four shots in a row there, then turned it over twice in the final three minutes on steals by Deshon Taylor and Jaron Hopkins as the Bulldogs worked their way to their first victory at Boise State since the 2004 season.
“They’ve gotten really good (at executing the scouting report),” Terry said. “Coach (Jerry) Wainwright has done a great job with the defense, Coach (Byron) Jones does a great job with the personnel and our guys are really believing and locking in with what we’re trying to do from a defensive standpoint. Our ball-screen defense has gotten so much better over the past 10 games.
“We’re just building it right now. We’re trying to play our best basketball at the right time.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE VS. UNLV
- Saturday: 4 p.m. at Save Mart Center
- Records: Bulldogs 18-11, 10-7 Mountain West; Rebels 10-19, 3-13
- TV/radio: ESPN3/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Notable: The Rebels under first-year coach Marvin Menzies are in last place in the Mountain West, losers of nine in a row headed into a game on Wednesday against Utah State. Their last three losses, at San Diego State, at Air Force and to Nevada, have come by an average of 24.0 points per game. Junior guard Jovan Mooring is leading UNLV in scoring at 12.4 points per game but has hit only 38.0 percent of his shots. The Rebels as a team have hit 39.7 percent of their shots including 32.7 percent at the 3-point line. They are 2-8 on the road and 1-7 in MW road games.