The question made Rodney Terry laugh out loud. Must be my incredulous, wide-eyed delivery.
How in the heck did your team win that game?
Fresno State’s men’s basketball coach didn’t answer right away. He just kept laughing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the chuckles continued until Terry got back to his hotel room, climbed into bed and shut off the light.
“I don’t know,” Terry replied, continuing to laugh. “We missed a lot of shots, open ones.”
For much of Thursday’s 65-60 victory over New Mexico at the Thomas & Mack Center, the Bulldogs couldn’t shoot a pea into the ocean. Their half-court offense produced nothing but hurried, off-balance looks. They could barely look askance at a Lobos player without the referees blowing their whistles.
I give my guys a lot of credit for hanging tough and working the game for 40 minutes.
Fresno State men’s basketball coach Rodney Terry
For most teams, this would be a recipe for a quick exit from the Mountain West Conference Tournament. For Fresno State, it’s as if Julia Child cooked up a chocolate soufflé and told everyone to grab a spoon.
Most teams lose when they shoot 36.8 percent from the field. They lose when their best player, Deshon Taylor, waits until the final 3 seconds of the first half before making a shot. They lose when their entire starting frontcourt gets in horrendous foul trouble and when a guy who hasn’t played in a month (Karachi Edo) gets called upon for key minutes.
Not only did these obstacles fail to trip up the streaking Bulldogs, they helped them hit their stride.
“Keep working the game, keep your composure, keep playing and don’t worry about calls,” Terry said. “You just play the game.”
Down 12 midway through the first half, the Bulldogs could have let this one get away early. Instead they battled back to take a 36-35 halftime edge on Taylor’s late 3-pointer, his first make of the game.
New Mexico could have pulled away after starting the second half on an 8-2 run. Instead Fresno State cobbled together enough solid possessions until someone got hot.
That someone, as has so often been the case since he came a starter, was Taylor.
Following a timeout with 5:33 remaining and the Bulldogs down 51-48, Taylor found himself with the ball on the perimeter with the shot clock ticking down.
Taylor dribbled the ball between his legs to clear a little space between himself and defender Elijah Brown before rising up for a 3-pointer that tied the score with 5:08 left.
38.6 Fresno State’s field-goal percentage in a Mountain West Tournament quarterfinal win over New Mexico.
It was as if Taylor was channeling Julien Lewis from last season’s NCAA Tournament run.
“I had to shoot it,” Taylor said.
Was he confident the shot was going in?
“Yeah,” he replied.
Taylor wasn’t through. In fact, the redshirt sophomore from Riverside was just getting started.
Following New Mexico miss, Taylor drove for a layup that put the Bulldogs ahead 53-51. And when the Lobos answered, Taylor responded with another 3.
“He’s a confident player, and he’s a guy who’s not afraid,” Terry said of Taylor. “He may miss some shots, but he’s going to keep playing and eventually it’s going to come back his way.”
“He loves competition, and he plays with a chip on his shoulder,” center Terrell Carter added. “He shows it every time he plays, and the rest of us feed off of that.”
Next Jaron Hopkins got into the act by hitting two free throws, making a steal on New Mexico’s next possession and dishing underneath to Cullen Russo for a dunk.
You win games this time of year with your defense.
Then came the cherry on top of the sundae: Jahmel Taylor’s high-arching 3-pointer off a pass from Deshon Taylor that made it a six-point lead with 18 seconds left.
“I thought every guy came in and gave us a good lift,” Terry said.
The roll call included Russo, who had his highest-scoring game since returning from a suspension, and Edo, who was only supposed to play in an emergency.
The emergency came when Bryson Williams fouled out with 13:42 remaining following a double technical. Edo entered and wound up logging 8 minutes. Paul Watson, Russo and Carter all played the majority of the second half with four fouls –and all somehow avoided fouling out.
“It’s basketball, man,” Carter said. “We just know things will come back around. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. You can’t ever get caught up in what the refs are calling. There’s ebbs and flows to every game.”
The Bulldogs have won six straight thanks to suffocating defense and enough individual spurts on offense to get over.
Right about now, everything seems to be flowing Fresno State’s way. The Bulldogs have won six straight thanks to suffocating defense and enough individual spurts on offense to get over.
Lacking a true point guard (though Hopkins is a very good approximation), Fresno State relies on a lot of one-on-one play. Probably more than is ideal. But that sort of style is contagious, because when one guy gets hot (typically Deshon Taylor) a few others usually follow suit.
These Bulldogs don’t follow the normal script. They scrap on offense. They play pillow-smothering defense. They come up aces in the big moments.
And the longer they keep winning, the more Terry gets to keep laughing and shrugging his shoulders. He’ll gladly keep doing it, all the way to Big Dance.
MOUNTAIN WEST SEMIFINAL: FRESNO STATE VS. NEVADA
- Friday: 7 p.m. at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas
- Records: Bulldogs 20-11, Wolf Pack 26-6
- TV/radio: CBS Sports Network/KFIG (AM 940)