Fresno State was playing through some bad match-ups, which always has been the case against San Diego State and more times than not, the Bulldogs made it work. Five out of six in the series they had won, two during the regular season on the way to the quarterfinal round of the Mountain West Tournament.
They were making it work again Thursday. But midway through the second half, down four points and in it with a big chance, they faltered. Badly. The Bulldogs turned over the basketball on five consecutive possessions and there was no recovering.
Fresno State went down and out 64-52 at the Thomas & Mack Center, and will have to wait to see if 21-11, 11-7 and a fourth-place finish in the conference is enough to gain a bid to the NIT while the Aztecs advance to the semifinal round where they will take on No. 1 seed Nevada.
"You have to value taking care of the basketball," coach Rodney Terry said. "This team has done a pretty good job of it. We felt good about it at halftime — we only had four turnovers at the half.
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"But you have to value taking care of the basketball down the stretch, especially in post-season play. Those possessions down the stretch compound with not getting a stop at the other end and those guys got a chance to get a little separation and we were fighting uphill from that point."
The Bulldogs in past games had forced San Diego State into bad shots and turnovers. But the damage this time was all self-inflicted, Fresno State missing injured point guard Jaron Hopkins more and more with each possession. The Bulldogs turned the ball over an average of 9.6 times in a five-game winning streak in February, but 14 times a game in their final four games without Hopkins.
Down 42-38, coming out of the under-12 timeout, the Bulldogs got a huge defensive play by Ray Bowles Jr., who had a few of them, blocking a shot by Matt Mitchell in the paint.
But they could not capitalize, opportunity eluding them. The next five trips down the floor with a chance to cut into that lead or stay in it there was an offensive foul turnover on Terrell Carter, a bad pass turnover by Bryson Williams trying to hit Carter on the block, a charging foul and turnover on Sam Bittner, a turnover by Deshon Taylor and then another turnover by Williams.
Deshon Taylor ended that run, fouled on a drive to the basket and hitting two free throws.
But the next time down, Bittner tried to feed Williams and the ball skipped through his hands and out of bounds.
"We had five turnovers in a row, a real bad stretch," Williams said. "We just didn't take care of the ball. We had to do better with that. We really worked all year hard on taking care of the ball. We really take pride in that and we just didn't do a good job of it."
That made it six turnovers in seven possessions and it got to eight in 13. San Diego State, which has won seven games in a row, eventually fit enough pieces together to get away. The Aztecs scored 17 points off the Fresno State turnovers.
"I feel like the main thing you feel is the offense starts to press, and with them I felt like they tried to," said Kell, the San Diego State guard. "During those times they just try to give it to one of their better players and go one-on-one. That's something we worked a lot on where we don;t allow anyone to do one-on-one against us. It was a team effort."
The Bulldogs, who have struggled with turnovers since Hopkins went down for the season with a right foot injury, had 10 turnovers in the second half and 14 in the game while hitting just 37.7 percent of their shots.
The San Diego State lead went from four points to 13, 10 after the three by Taylor.
If not for that run, the Bulldogs might still be in the tournament.
Despite some tough defensive match ups against the Aztecs' Kell, Jalen McDaniels and Matt Mitchell, Fresno State made its man-to-man defense work. San Diego State had an advantage in points in the paint, 36-30, even with Williams hitting 10 of 19 shots and scoring a game-high 23 points.
The 10 field goals by Williams were half the Bulldogs total — Fresno State was 20 of 53 in the game and 3 of 14 at the 3-point line. 37.7 and 21.4 percent.
Only 15 of the Aztecs' 52 shots were lay ups or dunks, they were just 3 of 13 shooting from the 3-point line (23.1 percent).
"They were hard match-ups. They were hard match-ups when we beat them twice," Terry said. "They were never easy, when they were healthy down there and they had everybody. Hard game to win. I think the two of us, when we're both healthy, it's a tie to toe game. It;s a huge loss for us obviously not having Jaron, but we never made it an excuse in any of the games he didn't participate in.
"We didn't take care of the ball. We didn't execute like we've been executing down the stretch."