Tough to lose track of a guy who is 6-foot-10 and does not move all that deftly. But Fresno State did far too often on Sunday in an 85-77 loss to Evansville when stuck in a defensive quandary trying to slow down guard D.J. Balentine, who hit 7 of 11 shots with most coming off curl screens, down screens and flare screens and had 17 points in the first half.
They got that done for the most part, but utilizing a chunk of zone defense to do it along with their man the Bulldogs left far too much space in the paint for Egidijus Mockevicius, the Purple Aces’ big, and he took full advantage.
Mockevicius scored 17 of his 23 points in the second half, getting free off screens and on occasion when the Bulldogs just lost track of him, scoring on dunks and layups – all of it far too easy.
He spent about five and a half minutes on the bench after picking up a third and fourth foul within 44 seconds midway through the second half, but when on the floor did plenty of damage while the Bulldogs stuck with Torren Jones ahead of Terrell Carter or Karachi Edo in the second half.
Carter started and played a solid six minutes in the first half, but got only two in the second, going to the bench after picking up a third foul with 17:58 to go.
“He did a nice job in the first half,” coach Rodney Terry said. “Terrell was really engaged and did a really nice job in guarding the big fella in terms of making him take difficult shots.
“In the second half, this kid is an older player, it’s not like he’s a freshman and he’s a pretty good player. He’s going to play for money. He’s a difficult matchup for us as he will be for a lot of people that they play. He gives them a really good weapon for them to deal with and our interior guys, we really struggled with defending him inside. We had to fight a little tougher to get through (small-on-big screens), especially on those kinds of guys.”
The Bulldogs didn’t – Evansville (10-2) scored 22 of its 45 second-half points in the paint and another 12 at the free throw line. And with Mockevicius picking up for Balentine, who hit only 2 of 7 shots and scored 6 points in 20 minutes in the second half, they could not afford many glitches at the offensive end. There were, however, plenty of them. Fresno State (8-4) turned the ball over 10 times in the first half while playing to a tie at 40, then was severely lacking at the start of the second.
After Mockevicius scored off a set play to open the half, Marvelle Harris missed a jump shot. Carter snagged an offensive rebound, but Cezar Guerrero turned over the ball. The next trip down there was another turnover, then a miss at the three-point line by Harris, a miss by Edo, another miss from three by Harris and another turnover. Evansville got the jump, a 10-0 run.
The Bulldogs got back to within 58-53 with 11:17 to go behind Harris and Julien Lewis, who scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half. But they were unable to recover, a nine-game winning streak at the Save Mart Center dating back to last season coming to an end.
“We knew going in that we had a mind and a focus that this was a high-level game for us,” Lewis said. “This was a big game for us to win and compete at the highest level and I think we did that at the highest level, but we let some possessions get away from us.”
Often playing four guards when Mockevicius was on the floor, the Purple Aces did as well. The Bulldogs didn’t have an answer, at either end of the floor. Harris led the Bulldogs with 24 points, six in the second half, with Lewis and Guerrero adding 12. But at the start of the first half, through the under-8 minute timeout, they had hit only 5 of 14 shots (35.7 percent).
“This was going to be a game of who imposed their will and who put their strength on who,” Terry said. “They have strengths. Obviously, we have strengths. They played to their strength. They made us have to downsize to them as opposed to us being able to use our size and make them have to size up with us. We had to make some adjustments. We had to move Paul (Watson) down to the four.
“We haven’t played a lot of teams this year where we had to downsize. We’ve been able to keep our big lineup out there, but today we had to do that.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Fresno State vs. Pacific Union
Vitals: 1 p.m. Dec. 27 at Save Mart Center
Records: Bulldogs 8-4; Pioneers 4-3
Radio: KFIG (AM 940)