The numbers are irrefutable, and impressive. Fresno State, in extending its winning streak to five games with a 72-59 victory over UNLV and locking in a No. 4 seed for the Mountain West tournament, allowed the Rebels to hit just 35.8 percent of their shots and to score at just .787 points per possession, had eight steals and forced 16 turnovers.
UNLV also went through dreadful stretches shooting the basketball, going 1 of 13 at one point in the first half and 1 of 11 to start the second half.
When the Bulldogs tightened the screws, the Rebels just didn’t have much chance on a day Fresno State honored seniors Paul Watson, Karachi Edo and Cullen Russo in a pregame ceremony.
Fresno State enters the Mountain West Conference Tournament as the No. 4 seed. There have been two No. 4s to win the tournament: San Diego State in 2010 and Wyoming in 2015.
Fresno State didn’t always exert its will or its wrath, which is completely understandable given the competitiveness of the game at points. But it also is not something the Bulldogs want to take with them to Las Vegas when defending their conference tournament championship, and certainly not into a quarterfinal matchup on Thursday against No. 5 New Mexico.
“When we sat down and really guarded, we were able to do some of the things that we’ve been able to do over the past couple of weeks defensively,” coach Rodney Terry said.
“Give them a lot of credit. They kept playing. They kept battling. They kept driving the basketball and doing some things that sometimes we’re prone to be vulnerable for in terms of fouling and they got to the foul line. They got there a lot.”
Through those lulls, the Bulldogs sent UNLV to the foul line 28 times and the Rebels are not a team that gets to the free throw line a ton. They had attempted just 21 free throws combined in their two games before showing up at Save Mart Center.
New Mexico, on the other hand, attempted the most free throws per game in the conference at 25.3, including 34 in a victory over San Diego State that clinched a No. 5 seed.
Postseason play starts for us in Vegas. This time of the year, you have got to finish and advance. That is what our slogan is at this part of the season. You have got to finish hard cuts, finish possessions, and finish everything that you do. If you are able to finish at a very high rate and execute at a very high level, then you advance. That is what this time of the year is about.
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry
And when Fresno State fouls, it gets itself in trouble – most of the time. It had 21 fouls at the defensive end in an otherwise breezy victory over the Rebels.
New Mexico is a perfect example, though. In losing its conference opener 78-73 to the Lobos at The Pit in Albuquerque, Fresno State sent New Mexico to the line 34 times and it scored 29 of its points there, 37.2 percent. In beating the Lobos 71-61 at Save Mart Center, the Lobos were just 12 of 17 at the line, scoring 16.9 percent of their points there.
“We have to play smarter, but we’ve been able to do that,” Terry said. “We just have to have good carry over with it.”
The difference could just be the game, and UNLV, which finished MW play 4-14 and was ranked 10th in the conference in scoring offense and last in field goal percentage. The Bulldogs also knew, win or lose, they were locked into a No. 4 seed, with Boise State clinching a No. 3 with a victory at Air Force earlier in the day.
And, headed to Las Vegas, they still are on a five-game run in which they have allowed opponents only 60.2 points per game.
The Bulldogs saw no reason to fret over a few soft stretches in an otherwise solid game.
“Our defense has really picked up and we are paying attention to our strategies from coach (Jerry) Wainwright,” said point guard Jaron Hopkins, who had 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists and one steal in the victory. “He has done a really good job on those. Hopefully, we can take all of that down to Vegas with us.”
Deshon Taylor led the Bulldogs with 19 points while Jaron Hopkins had 16 and Terrell Carter II added 15. For Carter, it was the most points he has scored in a game since putting up 21 in a Dec. 6 loss at Marquette.
Fresno State also in that stretch is averaging 9.0 steals, 3.8 blocked shots and forced 15.6 turnovers per game in beating San Jose State, New Mexico and UNLV at home and taking big road wins at San Diego State and Boise State.
It had not recorded road wins against the Aztecs and the Broncos since 1999 and 2004.
“We’ve been stressing this over the past month, how important it is to play every possession like it’s your last,” Terry said. “We’re not trying to come up with a magic formula right now all of a sudden that we’re going to Vegas, we’ve been doing what we have to do in Vegas for the past month.
“You have to have carry over from practice to games now, at this time of year. You don’t have to play perfect this time of year, but you have to play hard and you have to execute what you’re trying to get done. You just have to keep playing and keep working the game and I think this group over the course of this season has learned to take the good, the bad, and keep playing. Move on to the next play.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
MOUNTAIN WEST TOURNAMENT
No. 4 FRESNO STATE VS. No. 5 NEW MEXICO
- Thursday: 2:30 p.m. at Thomas & Mack Center (19,522), Las Vegas
- Records: Bulldogs 19-11, 11-7 Mountain West; Lobos 17-13, 10-8
- TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940), KGST
- Notable: The Lobos clinched the No. 5 seed with a 64-59 victory over San Diego State at The Pit in Albuquerque with Elijah Brown putting up a game-high 29 points and matching the scoring output of the Aztecs’ starting five. New Mexico also got forward Tim Williams back from a left foot injury, which could pose problems for the Bulldogs. Williams had 18 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals when the Lobos beat Fresno State 78-73 in the conference opener. Williams, who had been out since a Jan. 28 loss at Nevada, played 31 minutes in the victory over San Diego State.