Fresno State nearly had something in common with those footballs the Patriots used in the AFC championship.
The Bulldogs could not afford to drop another home game, not without falling way off the pace in the Mountain West Conference standings.
Not with another large crowd on hand at Save Mart Center (an announced 7,945) to watch them play an eighth-place Nevada team that had lost three straight and was juggling its starting lineup.
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Throughout the second half, Fresno State was in danger of sending its suddenly burgeoning fan base home dissappointed for the second consecutive Saturday.
The athletic department can only give away so many iPads and $100 bills. At some point, the final score matters.
Marvelle Harris must’ve sensed that in the final minute of the Bulldogs’ 66-62 victory. Because after a relatively quiet afternoon (at least for him) the junior swingman scored the game’s biggest buckets when his team desperately needed them.
Harris’ 3-pointer from the top of the key gave Fresno State a four-point lead with 57 seconds left. He then cashed in a layup, set up by a Karachi Edo block and Cezar Gurrerro assist, to put the Bulldogs ahead 63-57 with 39 seconds remaining.
It was a well-timed display of offense by Harris, whose 10 shot attempts were his lowest during MW play.
“We knew that late in the game I might have to step up, and that’s exactly what happened,” Harris said.
Harris’ 15 points (sophomore Paul Watson led the Bulldogs with 18) were nowhere close to the 40 he hung on the Wolf Pack earlier this month in Reno and well off his 21.7-point scoring average in MW games.
But with Watson playing well and Guerrero back, Harris doesn’t need to jack up as many shots. Fresno State finally has some balance.
Unlike last week’s triple-overtime loss to Wyoming, the Bulldogs made more of an effort to attack the lane.
That doesn’t mean the end result was a bunch of dunks and layups. More often that not, the driving player would find his path to the hoop blocked and dish to a teammate for an open 3-pointer.
Fresno State didn’t make many of its 3s (just 6 of 21), but the thought process was sound.
“We didn’t want to settle for jump shots without getting a piece of the paint,” coach Rodney Terry said.
As we approach the season’s final two months, it’s obvious these Bulldogs will lean almost exclusively on perimeter players for scoring.
Unlike Nevada, which has a low-post threat in 6-foot-9 forward A.J. West, Fresno State depends on guards and wings.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that type of arrangement. It just leads to inconsistency when the outside shots aren’t falling.
On Fresno State’s first possession, Harris found a cutting Alex Davis for a dunk. It was the perfect start for the 6-9 senior who battled an ankle injury during the season’s first two months.
Except Davis picked up two fouls in the first 6 minutes. He spent the rest of the half on the bench. In the second half, Davis committed his third and fourth fouls in a 3-second span before later fouling out on a silly reach-in.
Davis has now fouled out in three of the Bulldogs’ past four contests.
With Davis in foul trouble, Braeden Anderson logged nine minutes after playing a total of 14 in Fresno State’s first six conference games.
Harris immediately found the 6-9 sophomore with a no-look pass, a pass that Anderson wasn’t looking for and almost fumbled out of bounds. A couple possessions after that, Harris again found Anderson. This time, he blew a wide-open layup.
No one at this point expected the Kansas transfer to be a polished, finished product. Still, it’s fair to say more was expected.
Anderson says he has completely recovered from the high-impact car accident that cost him all of last season. The coaches say he’s physically healthy. Mentally, though, he’s still in recovery. Still unable to play with his former reckless abandon.
Anderson’s struggles prompted Terry to turn to a small lineup with the 6-foot-6 Edo at the five and the slender 6-7 Watson at the four. That lineup did surprisingly well defending West — Watson finished with a career-high five blocks — but had trouble stopping ball penetration.
The Bulldogs had all the built-in advantages in this one. They spent the week at home while Nevada traveled and played a game Tuesday night.
That won’t be the case next week when they visit San Diego State and Colorado State. The Aztecs have a 25-game home winning streak, and the Rams are 10-1 at home this season.
Because next week is so daunting, Fresno State needed a win Saturday. So when Nevada opened a six-point lead early in the second half, things began to get hot around the collar.
After spending most of the afternoon trying to get his teammates involved, Harris finally took matters into his own hands. The Bulldogs are sure glad he did.