When New Mexico went zone, Fresno State went awry. In the first half and again in the second, it was the same thing.
The Bulldogs, inexperienced at the point guard position without Cezar Guerrero, who remains ineligible for not meeting NCAA continuing eligibility requirements, turned tentative and tight with the basketball and that proved to be their undoing in a 76-64 loss to the Lobos on Wednesday in their Mountain West Conference opener at the WisePies Arena/The Pit in Albuquerque.
“I’m not an excuse guy,” said coach Rodney Terry, who had sophomore Emmanuel Owootoah run more point along with Marvelle Harris. “These guys are getting better and our team is getting better. Obviously, we know if we have a guy out there who is experienced going through this kind of stuff ... we really became more of a walk-it-up team, a set kind of team as opposed to still pushing the ball in transition make or miss — and, again, experience has something to do with that.
“It’s something we worked on in practice, but we have to have carry over in the games doing that. Both of those guys are young at the position, and it’s tough. It makes it hard to do that in a hostile environment.”
Fresno State (5-9, 0-1 in the MW) was down 36-29 at halftime and came out and quickly cut that to one when the Lobos opened the second half in man. Julien Lewis was fouled driving to the basket, knocking down both foul shots. Alex Davis was fouled trying to follow a miss, and hit two free throws. Lewis got an easy basket at the rim, driving through the New Mexico defense.
That was enough of that, coach Craig Neal went back to the 2-3 zone that had allowed the Lobos to gain some separation in the first half. And the Bulldogs were stymied right there.
New Mexico (9-4, 1-0) went on a 9-0 run on three consecutive 3-pointers, the first two from High Greenwood and the third from Deshawn Delaney, to extend a 41-38 lead to 50-38, and by the time the Bulldogs righted themselves a bit at the offensive end that run had hit 15-2.
Against that 2-3 zone in that second-half stretch, Fresno State hit just 1 of 5 shots and had two turnovers. The Lobos played two possessions of a 1-3-1 toward the end of that run, which was just as effective, resulting in a turnover and a miss from the 3-point line by Paul Watson.
That inability to attack the zone and an indifferent defensive effort made it impossible to get back in it against the Lobos, who hit season highs in field-goal percentage inside and outside the 3-point line.
New Mexico, which came in ranked seventh of 11 in the Mountain West in field-goal percentage at 43.3% (Fresno State was sixth), knocked down 23 of 39 shots (59%). Its high point in its first 12 games was 52.8% in a Dec. 20 loss at New Mexico State.
The Lobos, who were 10th in the league at the 3-point line at 27.1%, hit 8 of 10, most of them clean looks at the basket. Their high had been 55.6% (5 of 9) in a Nov. 16 victory over Cal State Fullerton.
In the second half New Mexico made nine of its 12 shots and got to the free-throw line 28 times, making 18. None were a knockout blow, but the Bulldogs clearly were reeling, particularly at the offensive end of the floor, unable to gets the stops to get out in transition.
Harris, who did not start the game because he was late to the practice Tuesday morning before departing for Albuquerque, came off the bench to score 19 points, becoming the 30th player in Fresno State history to surpass 1,000 career points along the way.
But the Bulldogs’ struggles were obvious, hitting only 22 of 57 shots (38.6%) including 9 of 26 at the 3-point line (34.6%). Lewis (14 points), Watson (12) and Karachi Edo (11) also scored in double figures, but they were a combined 13 of 33 from the floor.