It was a long time coming, so long that it was hard even to see it coming, especially in a season in which Fresno State has been short because of eligibility and injuries and has played poorly at times in losing nine of their first 14.
Some in there have not been close.
But on Saturday night, in tough against San Diego State — ranked No. 25 in the USA Today coaches’ poll and working a 47-game winning streak against opponents from California — the Bulldogs persevered when struggling to convert much offensively in the second half.
Fresno State watched a 17-point lead evaporate in what seemed an instant, too much going against them, but still pulled out a 59-57 victory over the Aztecs at the Save Mart Center.
It was the Bulldogs’ first victory over a ranked team since beating No. 14 Oklahoma State on Feb. 10, 2002, and their first over the Aztecs since a 70-62 victory on Nov. 20, 2000.
“It feels really good,” said coach Rodney Terry, who had been 0 for 7 against ranked opponents. “I’m really proud of our guys in terms of how hard they’ve really tried to stay together. We’ve had some adversity that we’ve had to work through early in the season here and guys could have folded up a little bit, but they’ve continued to work and tried to continue to have really good attitudes and really good body language every day.
“We knew that we were going to play a really good team. Coach (Steve) Fisher has built a great program at San Diego State. We know the level that they compete. We had to come and try to match that.”
The Bulldogs, with unsightly losses this season to Northern Arizona, Marist and Pacific, did that. But they still couldn’t breathe easy until they were off the floor.
Marvelle Harris had a chance to make it a two-possession game at the free-throw line with 1.2 seconds remaining. But though he was hitting at a 78.7% rate, sixth-best in the conference, and had made 5 of 5 against the Aztecs, Harris missed the first and then the second.
“I don’t know what was going through my mind,” he said.
San Diego State got the rebound, but could not fire off a credible shot and that was it. The Bulldogs had a victory and a lot to celebrate, playing as poor a “perfect” game as possible.
Fresno State (6-9, 1-1 Mountain West) hit 38.9% of its shots including 7 of 24 in the second half (29.2%) and got outrebounded 41-24. But the Bulldogs stood up to the Aztecs’ pressing and trapping, turning it over only six times in the game and only once against pressure up the floor.
Sophomore Emmanuel Owootoah, starting at the point, did not have a single turnover in 37 minutes.
Fresno State, meanwhile, forced 18 turnovers and had 11 steals and six blocks, all of the latter by forward Alex Davis, who had been slowed by a high ankle sprain.
They took J.J. O’Brien out of the game, the Aztecs’ second-leading scorer getting only six shots and missing them all. They limited second-chance points, a problem in a conference-opening loss at New Mexico on New Year’s Eve, with San Diego State scoring seven off 10 offensive rebounds.
And they made shots when they most needed them.
Harris scored 25 points, including two on a drive to the basket with 1:35 remaining that pushed the Bulldogs’ lead to 55-44.
It gave them just enough room down the stretch when the Aztecs (11-4, 1-1) closed in the final minute behind two 3-pointers from Matt Shrigley.
San Diego State was within 55-47 and then 55-49. After Harris made two free throws, Shrigley hit the second of his late 3-pointers to make it a two-possession game.
“They’re picked to win our league (Fresno State was picked seventh). Obviously, they’ve been a conference champion here the last couple of years. You’re going to get that kind of fight from those guys,” Terry said.
But the Bulldogs had enough.
“For us to have the opportunity to finally kind of get over the hump and beat them one time is a huge deal for us, just from a confidence standpoint,” Terry said. “We’ve been a little fragile early to start the year on our heels a little bit. But I think our guys are turning the corner right now, believing in themselves, having each other’s backs, playing for each other.
“We’re coming together as a team. We really are. We struggled early in the year with that, but we’re coming together. But it’s a huge win against a program that we have a lot of respect for.”