Marek Warszawski

Bulldogs don’t get a W for Nevada loss, but large fan turnout felt like a victory

‘Nice buzz’ from the crowd for Fresno State game not enough to beat number 10 Nevada

Fresno State basketball coach Justin Hutson appreciated the big crowd at the Save Mart Center for the Bulldogs game against Nationally ranked Nevada, but felt they got beat by turnovers and rebounds.
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Fresno State basketball coach Justin Hutson appreciated the big crowd at the Save Mart Center for the Bulldogs game against Nationally ranked Nevada, but felt they got beat by turnovers and rebounds.

Wasn’t that a blast?

Wasn’t that a fun way to spend an early evening in January?

Cheers. Groans. Gasps. Decibels. Thousands of people hanging on every shot. Reacting angrily to every whistle that goes against the home team. Chanting “DE-fense! DE-fense!” It’s how a college basketball game is supposed to feel like – and how Save Mart Center rarely does.

Saturday was the exception as well as a reminder. The Big Box Arena on Shaw Avenue can be the setting for a raucous atmosphere. And Fresno hasn’t completely forgotten how to be a basketball town.

No, Fresno State didn’t pull the upset. The Bulldogs didn’t send all 9,586 fans home happy, many of whom were attending their first game of the season. Thanks in large part to superior length at nearly every position, No. 10 Nevada prevailed 74-64 to hand Fresno State its first Mountain West loss.

I could use our time together to write about Nevada’s 27-3 edge in second-chance points, fueled by 17 offensive rebounds. Or about how Fresno State missed 13 of 20 layups, forced only seven turnovers and couldn’t seem to get a call in the second half.

Nevada forward Jordan Caroline dunks during the Wolf Pack’s 74-64 victory over the Fresno State Bulldogs at the Save Mart Center on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019. Carolina had 19 points and 16 rebounds, with seven offensive rebounds. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

The Bulldogs were outplayed, outmuscled and out-toughed by a bigger, better, more experienced team. Simple as that.

“I told our guys they’ve done that to a lot of people,” Fresno State coach Justin Hutson said. “I’ve played that group ... for a while, they’re big, they’re tough and they go. We could have been better.”

He’s right. Fresno State could have boxed out better, fought harder for defensive rebounds and been stronger in the key. When 6-foot-8 Nate Grimes resorts to a double-clutch, up-and-under move at the rim, as he did in the second half, you know Nevada’s length was in his head.

But that’s not really the lasting impression. Rather, I’ll remember the sight of a lower bowl at SMC that was nearly filled, plus a couple thousand fans in an upper deck that is normally curtained off. And I’ll remember the noise the crowd produced, even though it didn’t fuel the Bulldogs to their first victory over a Top 25 team since 2002.

I thought Hutson struck the perfect tone in his postgame remarks. He credited Nevada, accurately described his team’s shortcomings and didn’t fall into any lame platitudes about moral victories.

“It was great to see the Red Wave out tonight,” the first-year coach said. “We did a lot of good things to stay in the game. But they’re still going to put an L at the end of the column.”

Rather than lament a missed opportunity, my takeaway will be about how, for at least one evening, the SMC felt lively again. It felt like a college basketball venue that you see in cities like Durham, North Carolina; Lawrence, Kansas; and, yes, Reno.

It felt like the place to be.

Certainly, there were hiccups. While the arena was decently full at tipoff, thousands were still waiting to get in.

Part of that is the habit of Fresno State fans to show up 5 minutes before tipoff. Remember football season? Having Campus Pointe and Bulldog Grill directly across the street doesn’t help matters. There’s always time for one more drink.

Part of it is SMC operators don’t expect fans to show up for Bulldogs basketball games, so they don’t have enough staff selling tickets or doing security checks. Hence the absurdly long lines. If the Red Wave keeps turning out in big numbers, that’ll need to change.

It probably took until halftime until everyone settled into their seats. And since the Bulldogs only trailed 37-32, there was still plenty to cheer about.

Helping the fans find their lungs was arena hype man DJ Kay Rich, a new addition this season. While I might think it absurd that people need to be told when to cheer, many of them haven’t attended a college basketball game in so long that perhaps they do.

“If you’re proud to be a Bulldog fan, I need you to stand up right now!” Rich bellowed over the public-address system before the start of the second half.

“If you’re part of the Red Wave, stand up right now!”

“If you’re born and raised in Central California, make some noise right now!”

And you know what? People did.

So much of the discussion about Fresno State basketball, especially the dwindling fan interest over the last two decades, is rooted in the past.

It’s about Jerry Tarkanian and how he divided the community. It’s about Ray Lopes and Terry Pettis, two infamous names. It’s about how the Bulldogs never finished better than fifth in the Western Athletic Conference with Paul George, who became an NBA All-Star. Or the decent success under Rodney Terry that, except for a week in March 2016, never captured the Red Wave’s imagination.

But you know what? Those days are gone. They don’t really matter anymore. This was that long-awaited fresh start. A clear sign that fans want to cheer the Bulldogs again.

Instead of a library during finals week, SMC felt like a lively basketball arena. That might not get you a W at the end of the column, but it is a victory.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.