There was a lot at stake in Fresno State’s last game, a combustible mix of a Mountain West championship for host Boise State and a chance to improve seeding at the conference tournament for the Bulldogs. One team fired and one team didn’t, and it was the Bulldogs down big early, out of sorts and flailing a bit. And now into tournament time, to have any chance on Thursday against Colorado State in a Mountain West men’s basketball quarterfinal matchup at the Thomas & Mack Center, they are going to have to climb to the top of what has been a steep learning curve embracing opportunity.
“I couldn’t fault our approach to the game or our willingness to play the game at the level that we wanted to, but I do think we didn’t handle not making some easy baskets,” Fresno State coach Rodney Terry said. “That kind of deflated us early, we let them get off to a great start and we were really back on our heels the entire ballgame and never really could get in a rhythm because of it.
“From that standpoint, in terms of the maturity piece, playing in a big ballgame with a lot on the line for both teams, we have to take a step forward. We knew going in we were going to play in a hostile environment, but those are the games that you have to embrace if you want to take that next step.”
The Bulldogs do, but they are up against it now in a matchup between the No. 3 and No. 6 seeds in the MW Tournament. The Rams are 26-5, older, more mature and physical, and are well past growing pains with a starting lineup that includes three fifth-year seniors in J.J. Avila, Daniel Bejarano and Stanton Kidd and a fourth-year junior in Tiel Daniels.
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In an 80-57 loss at Fort Collins on Jan. 31, Fresno State was down by 15 in the first half. In an 81-73 loss at the Save Mart Center on Feb. 18, the Bulldogs were down by double-digits not even five minutes in and though they were able to stabilize they never were able to get those five minutes back.
At positions one through five the Rams present difficult matchups. The 6-foot-8 Avila is at the top of that list. In the game at the Save Mart Center, he was in foul trouble and played only 23 minutes, the fewest he has played in a Mountain West game in his career, and still hit 8 of 12 shots in scoring 16 points while pulling four rebounds with three assists and two steals.
“They’re a great effort team,” Terry said. “They play extremely hard-nosed. I like to think we’re a good effort team, too, but they had better effort than we did and we have to exceed their effort to have an opportunity because that’s what they do.
“They’re going to be who they are in terms of the guys who score the basketball, a shot goes up and it’s the game within the game and we’re going to have to do a really good job of having a physical mindset that we’re going to block out at all five spots. They’re a really good team.
“There’s no other way that I can say it. They’re a team that easily could be in the Top 25 right now, so it’s a great challenge, a great opportunity for us, and we have to go out and compete for 40 minutes.”
The Bulldogs know what can happen if it is 35 or 33 or 30. “Not against this team. They’ll get after you. You have to come out strong,” sophomore forward Karachi Edo said.
The 71-52 loss at Boise State to end the regular season — which hurt even more when both Wyoming and Utah State lost on the same night (Fresno State would’ve leapfrogged both into the No. 4 seed had it won) — could prod the Bulldogs against Colorado State. There was a disappointment following that loss — with the outcome, obviously, but more so with the way they scattered after a slow start with so much at stake.
“We’ve started like that a couple of times this year and we know it’s hard to come back in this league because everyone is capable of playing, everyone is a good opponent,” said Marvelle Harris, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer. “We know if you want to make it a game you have to come out with intensity and energy and that’s something that we’ve been working on.
“I don’t think we could be more ready. We’ve been waiting for this moment for the whole year. We were looking for it, and now we’re ready to prove that we want to step up and be a force to be reckoned with in this league. We have to come out ready to play a basketball game.”