Some 12-plus minutes in, the Fresno State Bulldogs had 30 points on the scoreboard and a 22-point lead on New Mexico, matching the largest they had put together this season against any Mountain West opponent.
They had hit 13 of their 19 shots and at the defensive end were taking apart the Lobos, who had made life very difficult for them in their first three seasons in the conference.
The Bulldogs were playing some of their best basketball of the season, playing in front of 8,310 — the largest crowd of the season at Save Mart Center that included the family of the late Hall of Fame coach Jerry Tarkanian, who was honored in a pregame ceremony.
The rest of the way, not so much. The Bulldogs didn’t score 30 points the rest of the way. But they kept up the defensive pressure and managed to hold off the Lobos on Saturday, getting the winning points in a bit of a strange twist at the free-throw line to secure a 59-55 victory.
At the line with 7.2 seconds remaining, Marvelle Harris knocked down one, then the other, the only time in the second half the Bulldogs went to the line and knocked down two free throws.
“I don’t think there was any pressure or anything,” Harris said. “We practice free throws daily. We practice free throws, free throws, free throws. I just knew I had to knock them down.
“We started hot, then we went on a little dry spell. But it was great. The crowd kept us in the game, we kept ourselves in the game and I think at a point we kept the crowd in the game. It was kind of weird, it was. Now that I think about it, it was.”
Fresno State (14-15, 9-7 MW) missed the front end of three one-and-ones in the second half and down the final three minutes went to the line four times and made just one of two free throws each time, which made getting its first victory over the Lobos as a member of the Mountain West just more difficult.
The Bulldogs did plenty of that after hitting 30 on a short jump shot by forward Alex Davis.
They didn’t make a field goal for the next nine-plus minutes, starting with the final 7:31 in the first half, their only points coming from the free-throw line. Julien Lewis ended that streak with a strong drive to the basket, but then it was another three minutes before the Bulldogs made another field goal.
New Mexico (14-15, 6-11) missed 17 of its first 21 shots but closed to within 32-25 at halftime. It could not get closer than two.
When the lead was threatened, the Bulldogs continually came up with a play at the defensive end. They had five steals and forced nine turnovers in the second half, which led to 15 of their 27 points. The Lobos hit 45.8% (11 of 24) of their shots in the second half and only 1 of 5 on 3-pointers (they finished 1 of 8 on 3s in the game).
Up 46-43, Paul Watson came up with a steal that led to a 3-point play by Cezar Guerrero. Up 51-46, the Bulldogs forced a turnover on a 5-second violation on a sideline out-of-bounds. Up 55-52 inside of two minutes to play, they forced another turnover off a sideline out-of-bounds play.
Devon Williams, under pressure and the time evaporating, threw the ball inbounds at the feet of Hugh Greenwood, who could not pull it in. Up 56-53 inside of one minute to play, Emmanuel Owootoah came up with a steal, which led to the trip to the line where he, of course, hit one of two.
“I just think we had a lot of great guys on the floor who were great defensive stoppers,” Harris said.
“Not to take anything away from anyone on the bench, because we all played defense. I think with the leadership we had on the floor and the players we have, we knew we could get a stop. Also, with us, we had the crowd in the game and I think they caused a little problem (for them), too.”
The Bulldogs did get strong minutes one through eight at the defensive end — Watson had four steals and 12 rebounds to go along with 10 points, and Alex Davis blocked two shots.
Darnell Taylor had 10 strong minutes and everyone coach Rodney Terry put in front of Greenwood and Deshawn Delaney, the Lobos’ leading scorers in conference play at 12.6 and 10.1 points per game, made it a tough go.
Delaney got 15 points, but Greenwood was just 1 of 7 and finished with three points.
“We knew going into the game, Greenwood, he’s a big part of what they have going in terms of offense. He’s really the head of the monster,” Terry said.
“If you can do a great job of containing him, they really rely on him to carry the load in a lot of different areas — leadership, scoring and making plays. And I thought our guys collectively as a group did a good job of really containing him.”