Fresno State held a moment of silence for Jerry Tarkanian. The Bulldogs then went out and quieted the Mountain West Conference’s hottest team.
Players wore black patches with “Tark” on their jerseys. Emblematic of the strong defensive effort they patched together.
As a tribute to Tarkanian, who died Wednesday at age 84, Fresno State coach Rodney Terry left an open seat on the bench. Placed across the chair was a folded white towel, which the Bulldogs never threw in.
During a special halftime ceremony, a message from son Danny Tarkanian played on the Save Mart Center video screen. The home team must’ve heard it loud and clear.
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Fresno State came up with several ways to honor its former coach and famous alumnus but none more so than this:
Bulldogs 70, Broncos 64.
“Tark was all about winning, and he was all about defense,” Terry said after Fresno State halted Boise State’s eight-game win streak.
“His teams were so good defensively. People always saw them in the open court, but a lot of that open-court play was because of their defense.”
Defense was the reason the Bulldogs won this game, particularly in the second half when they limited the high-powered Broncos to 22 points on 35% shooting.
And even more particularly in a swarming, suffocating final 5 minutes, 26 seconds that saw Fresno State turn a four-point deficit into a six-point margin of victory.
Spurred by an announced crowd of 6,553, it was probably the Bulldogs’ finest stretch of defense all season. Hands were up, and all 10 feet were moving and working in synch.
The job Julien Lewis did on Boise State guard Derrick Marks deserves special mention.
The MW’s best offensive player finished with 31 points on 11-of-17 shooting, so it’s not as if Fresno State shut Marks down. But Lewis shadowed his every step and made him fight for every point.
That effort paid off when it mattered most. With 2:10 left in a tie game, Marks finally got free from Lewis and launched a jumper. But because he was 30 feet from the basket, the ball barely grazed rim.
Marvelle Harris grabbed the rebound and drove coast-to-coast for a layup that put the Bulldogs ahead for good.
“We knew we were playing in (Tarkanian’s) honor, and we wanted to go out and get a win in memory of him,” Harris said.
When you think about it, there was no better way to honor a coach who won more than 80% of his games. (Before the NCAA scrubbed some of those victories.)
Especially a coach as single-minded and singly devoted to basketball as Tarkanian.
Sure, Tark would’ve been touched by the patches and video presentation. But he would’ve been more thrilled by the way the 6-foot-3 Lewis elevated above the rim to block a shot by Boise State’s 6-9 forward Chandler Hutchinson. Or the way Harris dove to the court to force Marks into one of his five turnovers.
For a coach known for defensive expertise and getting his teams to play it with fanatical effort, there can be no more fitting tribute.
“That’s the only thing we really can do,” sophomore guard Emmanuel Owootoah said. “Just go out and play hard for him and try to get that win. We know he’s going to be watching now.”
When I spoke to Owootoah on Friday afternoon following practice, he professed not to know much about the legendary coach. And why should he?
Owootoah is 19 years old. Born in 1996, he wasn’t alive during Tark’s UNLV glory days and just a kid during his Fresno State years.
Plus, he’s Canadian. Pretty sure Bulldogs basketball isn’t a huge topic in Toronto.
“I had never heard of Tark until I came here,” Owootoah said.
But what he has learned is rather interesting: “I’m pretty sure he was fun to play for. They were winning, and everyone enjoyed it.”
For someone who doesn’t know much about Tarkanian, he sure knows a lot.
Lewis has a little more first-hand knowledge, but not because he saw Tark’s teams play. Nope. He watched the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary on Chris Herren and has seen Herren and Rafer Alston highlights on YouTube.
When I described to Lewis the style of play Tarkanian was best known for — using defensive pressure to set up transition buckets — the junior’s eyes grew wide.
“That’s what I’m all about, too,” Lewis said. “That’s what I want at Fresno State. I want our team to be a more defensive team. I know we’ve got good scorers, but I want our team to have a defensive mindset.
“I want our team to be a dog out there that just guards people up and down the floor for 40 minutes. … I think that’ll build our team, like some of the big programs. We’re trying to get there.”
It has been 13 years since Tarkanian last coached at Fresno State. Long enough for some memories to fade and others to turn false.
On Saturday, however, the Bulldogs mustered up an effort that did justice to the legend. Tark would’ve enjoyed every floor burn.