It was 17 games that Cezar Guerrero was out, the Fresno State point guard sitting idle while ineligible after not meeting NCAA continuing eligibility requirements. That, he said, was extremely difficult.
But he made it back, and he was not the only one to re-emerge for the Bulldogs in a 73-62 victory over San Jose State on Wednesday night at the Event Center, which put them three games over the .500 mark in conference play for the first time since 2010-11.
Guerrero, who entered at the second media timeout, scored 15 points and had a stretch in the second half, as the Bulldogs were getting away, where he was fouled on a shot from the 3-point line, made all three foul shots, then hit back-to-back 3’s.
“It felt great,” he said. “Overall, I just feel like I need to get more in shape, more in game shape and bring the defensive pressure like Emmauel Owootoah does.”
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Paul Watson, who had struggled with his shot much of the season and was hitting only 22.8% on the road, had his best game in a month in knocking down 7 of 11 shots in scoring a game-high 19 points. Like he had in a Bulldogs’ victory at Nevada, he hit his first two shots, including a 3-pointer. There, his back tightened a bit after taking a fall at the defensive end. But this time, he kept going.
“I just tried to come out again just as aggressive and tried to make the right play, don’t try to do too much and let the game come to me and it worked for me,” he said.
While the offense generated by Guerrero and Watson helped, the Bulldogs won the game in the second half when ratcheting up the defensive pressure on the Spartans (2-15, 0-5).
San Jose State came all of the way back from an 11-point deficit in the first half, taking a lead.
The Spartans were at one point shooting the basketball at a season high — it’s only 44.9% against Division I opponents, but they had 50% topped for a while. With Fresno State closing out on shooters better, and doing a better job staying in front of the basketball, they hit only 10 of 27 shots in the second half.
Guerrero gave the credit for that to Owootoah, who also hit his first three shots, all beyond the 3-point line.
“He’s the one that got us going today,” Guerrero said. “He changed the whole aspect of the game with his defensive intensity. I’m proud of him. He’s stepping up in a big way.”
Up 40-37 with 16:41 to play, the Bulldogs allowed only two points over the next 6:41. And with Marvelle Harris rebounding from a slow start (he missed his first six shots) following his 40-point performance at Nevada, Fresno State was able to push its lead to 15 and eventually to as many as 21 when Guerrero hit the back-to-back 3-pointers.
“In the first half we let them kind of walk into (their) offense a little more than we wanted to,” coach Rodney Terry said. “But (Owootoah) came out and set the tone really well on their primary ball handler and everybody else picked up the intensity.”
And, with Guerrero back and Watson finding a rhythm to go along with Harris and Julien Lewis, and the Bulldogs (9-9, 4-1) getting valuable minutes from the bench, they are now whole going into a matchup against Wyoming on Saturday at the Save Mart Center with first place in the Mountain West Conference at stake.
The Bulldogs and Wyoming both are 4-1 in conference play, with the Cowboys losing at home Wednesday to San Diego State.
For Guerrero it all certainly beats sitting out.
“The worse feeling in quite some time,” he said. “Every time the bus left (on a road trip) I felt like I let my team down and I just want to say, I apologize for putting them in that situation. But overall, they grew. Emmanuel grew. Marvelle grew,” he said.
“Everybody grew and I feel like I’m coming in at the right time and hopefully sooner or later I’m going to be back in the rotation like I am right now and why mess up something that’s not broken? If it takes me to be the best sixth man and come off the bench and we keep on winning, then that’s what I’m going to do. It doesn’t matter. Whatever coach wants me to play, that’s what it takes to win the Mountain West Conference championship.”