Fresno State had plenty of good going on Wednesday night, starting with Bryson Willians, Jaron Hopkins and Deshon Taylor, who attacked the paint start to finish and combined to score 62 of the Bulldogs’ points in a 77-64 men’s basketball victory over UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center.
There was Sam Bittner, who somewhat stunningly had a plus/minus for his 26 minutes of minus-1, yet made some huge plays in the game including a head-long dive to secure a 50-50 ball and a screen at the offensive end that floored the Rebels’ Jordan Johnson.
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Terrell Carter II, Nate Grimes and Jahmel Taylor each had their moments.
Added up, it was the ingredients for the Bulldogs’ fifth victory in a row, all coming by double-digits, something they have not managed since the Boyd Grant years.
Like those days, it starts at the defensive end of the floor.
UNLV is the highest-scoring team in the Mountain West Conference, and in holding it 20.7 points below its season average the Bulldogs have now held every one of their past five opponents to 65 points or fewer.
The Bulldogs beat Wyoming 80-62, San Diego State 79-61, San Jose State 77-57, Colorado State 86-65 and UNLV 77-64.
Fresno State had a similar run in 2004, but fittingly the last time they had a longer streak was in the 1985-86 season, Grant’s last with the Bulldogs. It had a streak of six games in which its opponent didn’t break the speed limit, scoring 55, 48, 64, 48, 50 and 63 points.
Two things there, though.
One, the shot clock was introduced in college basketball that season, but it was set at 45 seconds, not 30 that it is these days.
Two, the 3-point shot was not yet in play; it started the next season, 1986-87.
So this run, not bad.
“Our guys have really bought into playing really hard on that end of the floor and it has been a game-changer for us,” coach Rodney Terry said.
Against UNLV, the Bulldogs would appear to be in deep. The Rebels have a 7-foot center in Brandon McCoy hitting 56.2 percent of his shots in scoring 17.0 points per game. They have Shakur Juiston, the junior college player of the year last season, hitting 65.1 percent of his shots in scoring 14.5 points per game. They have perhaps the quickest guard in the conference in Johnson, averaging 13.9 points per game.
The only one the Bulldogs had any problem with was Johnson, who beat the Bulldogs off the dribble and was fouled getting to the rim.
He led UNLV with 13 points, 11 coming at the foul line.
But Fresno State not only held a team averaging 84.7 points per game to 64, it allowed the Rebels to hit only 17 of 57 shots, 29.8 percent.
UNLV also was tied for the lead in the conference in field goal percentage at 50.2.
“It’s a testament to our defense and how Coach Terry wants us to play defense,” Hopkins said. “We get out there and play with energy and activity as best we can and I think we’re communicating as a group now.
“We’ve picked up our steals these past four or five games and that’s good for us and we’re playing without fouling, which is good for us, as well.”
That floor is solid
Hopkins missed four games before the start of conference play with two transverse process fractures in his back, the result of a hard fall after he was fouled on a drive in a December victory over Cal State Bakersfield.
He hit the floor hard again with 13:32 to go Wednesday, fouled going hard to the rim.
“It comes with the territory,” he said. “When you elevate like that sometimes that happens.”
Hopkins popped up and hit the first of his two free throws, but apparently is unaware most can’t get off the floor at that level.
“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun getting the crowd into it. The oohs and aahs are always great for our team. It gives us energy and it gives us energy on the bench and those guys have been fantastic all year along.”
Terry had some advice for Hopkins – next time, protect yourself and hang onto the rim.
Sound, given Hopkins has played large in the Bulldogs’ surge. In the five game winning streak he has scored 20 or more three times, has hit 36 of 63 shots (57.1 percent) and is averaging 17.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game.
“He has been the difference in our team,” Terry said. “His pace of play. His finishing plays. Just being a senior and recognizing what the defense is giving us out there, he’s playing to his strength a majority of the time and getting guys involved. I think, again, his play and his leadership has taken our team to another level.”
Flipping the script
When the Bulldogs and Terry joined the Mountain West in 2012-13, New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV were the big dogs. Early on, those teams gave Fresno State fits.
Now, the Bulldogs have won six in a row against UNLV and five of the past six against San Diego State. Fresno State has swept both this season. And it has won four of the past five against New Mexico including 89-80 this season; the Bulldogs and Lobos meet on the final day of the regular season March 3.
The Bulldogs had the player of the year in the conference in Marvelle Harris in 2016 and Paul Watson was the freshman of the year in 2014.
Hopkins was on the all-defensive team last season, Harris in 2015 and ’16.
But in the first six seasons in the Mountain West, and with that turnaround, the Bulldogs have had only two first-team all-conference honors (Harris in 2015 and ’16) one second-team selection (Tyler Johnson in 2014) and one third-team selection (Deshon Taylor last season). They also have had only two players gain honorable mention on the all-conference team (Harris in 2014 and Johnson in ’13).
In that time, San Diego State and New Mexico have had 11 players make the Mountain West first, second or third teams.
Colorado State has been represented by 10 players, Boise State and Nevada by nine, UNLV by seven, Wyoming by six and Utah State by five.
Terry also has not been coach of the year.
Last home game
Through 16 home dates – only one to go, Saturday night against Wyoming – the Bulldogs are averaging 5,807 at the Save Mart Center to rank seventh in the conference.
Fresno State will try to improve on that with the help of former football great Derek Carr. It’s #DC4Hoops night with general seating for $4 and free parking.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
WYOMING AT FRESNO STATE
- Saturday: 7 p.m. at Save Mart Center
- TV/radio: ESPN3/KFIG (AM ESPN 940), KGST (AM ESPN Deportes 1600)
- Records: Bulldogs 20-8, 10-5 Mountain West; Cowboys 17-11, 8-7
- Of note: The Cowboys absorbed a costly 119-114 loss to New Mexico on Tuesday, falling out of a tie for fourth in the Mountain West Conference. Wyoming hit 57.8 percent of its shots including 56.5 percent at the 3-point line, but its defense was … not good. New Mexico went into the game seventh in the conference in field goal percentage (44.4) and third in scoring (80.6 ppg) points, and hit 37 of 60 shots (61.7 percent) in putting up the most points it has this season against a Division I opponent. The Lobos opened the season with a 147-76 victory over Northern New Mexico. The Cowboys have lost four of six, a streak that started with an 80-62 loss to the Bulldogs on Feb. 3 in Laramie. Fresno State held Justin James, the Cowboys’ leading scorer at 18.7 ppg, to just nine points. James was 3 of 10, 2 of 5 at the 3-point line.