The Fresno State Bulldogs were down by 11 points to San Diego State, 16 minutes and change to go, and at that point that was only one of a growing number of problems.
Karachi Edo and Torren Jones already were on the bench in street clothes and Paul Watson was riding an exercise bike at a moderate pace, questionable and pedaling toward doubtful to return from a calf injury suffered just moments earlier in an awkward collision with teammate Cullen Russo when in pursuit of a loose ball.
Ahead in the not too distant future, there was a very real possibility that Fresno State would run headfirst into a preposterous streak of 161 consecutive men’s basketball games that the Aztecs have won when leading with five minutes to go.
And, yet, the Bulldogs found ways to win.
Short three starters, outshot and outrebounded at both ends of the floor, Fresno State still came away with a 58-57 victory Wednesday night at Save Mart Center.
“I just said to our guys, ‘Let’s try to outwork these guys and let’s just compete as hard as we can compete right now,’ ” coach Rodney Terry said.
The Bulldogs, a man-to-man team, used a zone in the second half to thwart an offensively challenged team and get back in the game. The Aztecs, in first place in the Mountain West by 3 1/2 games over New Mexico, also went in ranked last of 11 in the conference in scoring offense, field goal percentage and three-point shooting percentage, and they went through a stretch of 4:27 with just one basket.
Fresno State continued to work back, though nothing came easily at the offensive end. The Bulldogs hit just 35.2 percent of their shots in the game and, incredibly, 30.8 percent in the second half when erasing that double-digit deficit.
Marvelle Harris led them with 20 points, hitting 7 of 17 shots. Russo had a double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds. Julien Lewis had 12 points. But the Bulldogs also got 19 big minutes from freshman Sam Bittner off the bench and 16 solid minutes in the second half at the defensive end from Lionel Ellison.
“Our whole emphasis on this game was, ‘We have enough dogs in the kennel,’ ” Harris said. “When a player goes down, we always have someone ready to step up. Cullen did a great job on the boards. We had Sam. He came in and played major minutes and for his first game to be San Diego State, he did a great job. I think everybody stepped up to the challenge.”
Russo, playing 39 minutes with Edo, Jones and Watson sidelined, tied the score at 50 with a three-pointer with 6:44 to play. It was the second of two in the game for the junior forward, who had made only eight this season and hit only 25.8 percent of his 31 attempts from the three-point line.
Lewis followed that with another three-pointer and while the Aztecs tied the score twice, the Bulldogs were never behind the rest of the way.
Two free throws by Russo put Fresno State up 56-54 with 1:54 remaining, and in those final seconds it was the Bulldogs who made the plays and not the team that had developed an uncanny knack of finding ways to win – two of those 11 conference victories came in overtime and another four were by three points or fewer.
The Aztecs came down and Jeremy Hemsley missed a jumper. Dakarai Allen pulled the offensive rebound, but they ended up turning it over on an offensive foul by Skylar Spencer. Harris drove hard to the basket and was fouled, making both free throws to put the Bulldogs up four at 58-54.
San Diego State missed again and got another offensive rebound and a second chance – the Aztecs had 10 offensive rebounds but could turn them into only six points. Zylan Cheatham, who grabbed that rebound, was fouled and made one of two foul shots.
Up three, Lewis missed a jumper and fouled Cheatham going after the rebound. One free throw went down, then the next. One-point game. The Bulldogs had been able to get to the rim down the stretch, but with 11 seconds remaining and the shot clock winding down, Harris missed a shot from the three-point line.
The Aztecs’ Cheatham got the rebound and San Diego State called a timeout. But the Aztecs’ final shot, a jumper by Trey Kell, was off and the Bulldogs emerged tied for second place in the conference with New Mexico.
Bench a big plus, not minus – Russo said he felt a little extra pressure going into the game knowing Edo (wrist) and Jones (medical issue) were not going to play.
“You know you have to step up with two guys being out and not having as much depth as we’re used to,” he said. “They told me, ‘You have to step up big getting on the boards.’ That was the biggest thing and I tried to do as much as I could.”
But the minutes from Lewis, Bittner and Ellison off the bench proved large in the victory as well, even though their stat lines were less than imposing. Lewis scored 12 points and had three rebounds, two steals and one assist. But Bittner was 0 of 1, the shot coming from the three-point line, and the only other nonzero on his line was fouls. He committed two. Ellison was 0 of 2, but hit one of two free throws and had two rebounds and two steals.
The stat that mattered for all three off the bench was the last one – the +/- rating. All three were a plus-12 and only one of the Bulldogs’ five starters finished on the plus side. That was Harris, who was plus-1.
The end – San Diego State kept its streak of 161 consecutive victories when leading with five minutes to go intact – the score was tied at 50 at the five-minute mark.
But the Bulldogs did put an end to a number of others, including:
The Aztecs had won 69 games in a row in games they held a lead of 10 or more points.
They had won a MW record eight consecutive conference road games.
They had won 11 games in a row, the second longest streak in the nation.
They had won 13 consecutive MW games, falling one win short of tying the conference record set by New Mexico in 2010.
They had won 15 games in a row when hitting a higher percentage of shots than their opponent – San Diego State hit 38 percent, Fresno State 35.2.
About that defense – Fresno State forced 18 turnovers leading to 23 of its 58 points, 39.7 percent, and turnovers have played a big part in some of the Bulldogs’ victories.
They forced 17 in a victory at Air Force and turned them into 28 of their 56 points (50 percent), forced 21 at UNLV and scored 33 of their 69 points off them (47.8 percent) and forced 11 against Wyoming and turned them into 22 of their 71 points (30.9 percent).
Et cetera – San Diego State had a 41-29 rebounding advantage, including 10-7 on offensive rebounds. The Bulldogs, though, had more second-chance points, scoring seven to six for the Aztecs.
▪ Watson did not return to the game. For now, he is listed as day to day, as are Edo and Jones. The Bulldogs next play on Saturday at Nevada.
▪ The double-double for Russo was his fourth this season. He has scored 10 or more points seven times and had 10 or more rebounds five times.
▪ Bittner before Wednesday had played in seven games, a total of 28 minutes.
▪ The Bulldogs are now 9-1 this season when an opponent hits less than 40 percent of its shots. San Diego was only 19 of 50, 9 of 20 in the first half and 10 of 30 in the second.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada