Fresno State had to survive a last-second run at the rim, Air Force guard Trevor Lyons charging down the floor with a chance to tie or even win it at the end.
The Bulldogs presented enough of a challenge on the shot, forcing a second huge miss in a half in which there were not very many of them, and with a 68-66 victory over the Falcons on Wednesday at the Save Mart Center secured a first-day bye at next week’s Mountain West Conference Tournament.
The end result is what was desired going in; getting there probably was far from it.
Fresno State went through stretches where it didn’t show much interest in attacking the Falcons’ zone, settling for 3-point shots that did not serve the Bulldogs well for most of the game. Defensively, they gave up points in bunches as the Falcons cut a 15-point deficit to one, a 7-point deficit to three and a 9-point deficit to one.
“We talked about the last couple of days, about playing Air Force,” coach Rodney Terry said. “Their team is always an extremely hard team to play against. We were going to have to have tremendous defensive transition effort, we knew we were going to have to have some defensive patience.
“Their strength plays really hard against our strength. We’re an aggressive man-to-man defense and it’s really hard for our guys to have the mind set to kind of pull back a little bit. You can’t be as aggressive against a team that’s really efficient and knows what they’re looking for. When we did that tonight, they put us in bad positions. But I give our guys a lot of credit. They hung tough. They could have folded, didn’t fold. They stayed together.”
At the end, with the Bulldogs in scramble mode, they got a huge play at the defensive end by Julien Lewis. Up 67-66 with 16 seconds to go, they saw the Falcons’ Marek Olesinski miss an open 3-pointer. Zach Kocur rebounded and got the ball out to Hayden Graham, but rather than set a final shot at a win he fired from a long way right of the basket and missed a 3-pointer. Olesinski got the offensive rebound right under the basket and went up for a shot with 9 seconds on the clock, but Lewis was there.
Lewis got his hand on the ball and stymied Olesinski on his way up. It was ruled a held ball, with possession going to the Bulldogs.
“He has made a couple of really big plays like that,” Terry said. “I go back to the Wyoming game where I think it was (Josh) Adams or (Riley) Grabau, one of those guys had a wide open layup and from the backside, having his teammates’ back, he came over and made a big play and he did that for us again.”
After a timeout, the Bulldogs got the ball in to Marvelle Harris, who was fouled with 5.7 seconds to go. He hit the front end of a 1-and-1 to push the lead to 68-66. But he missed the second, which sent Lyons racing up the floor with the ball, the Bulldogs’ Emmanuel Owootoah on his hip and Paul Watson going high at the rim to force a shot over his outstretched arm.
Lyons got there but not to the basket, and the Bulldogs (15-15, 10-7) reached double-digit wins in conference play for the first time since 2006-07 when going 10-6 in the Western Athletic Conference. Fresno State will have that first-day bye next week in Las Vegas as, at minimum, the No. 6 seed.
It also was the Bulldogs’ fourth victory in a row in games decided by five or fewer, which could pay dividends in postseason play, when the games typically get tighter.
“I feel like at this point in time we’re playing our best basketball,” said forward Alex Davis, honored before the game on Senior Night. “I thought the vibe was perfect. The guys are just jelling together every day and we’re starting to find out where each other’s sweet spots are on the court.
“I think that will help us in the long run. It should help us going up to Boise (for the regular season finale Saturday) because we’re going to have to be just on point with everything.”
Said Terry: “This time of year, everyone understands what they were playing for. The urgency on every possession, understanding how important each of those are on both ends of the floor is really critical. And then being able to play through some things. I let our guys play through some things.
“I mean, we had a 7-minute stretch to start the game where I could have easily called timeout and tried to gather these guys. But this time of year, you have to let your guys play through some things. They have to play through it a little bit as opposed to having to call a timeout and regroup and they were able to do that tonight.”