Marek Warszawski

Warszawski: NCAA-bound Fresno State basketball team climbs ladder of success

Just like the rise of his program, Rodney Terry kept climbing.

While all the players and assistant coaches who trimmed the nets in celebration of Fresno State’s first NCAA Tournament berth in 15 years stood on the ladder looking up at the rim, Terry got a better view.

The fifth-year coach kept climbing until he reached a rung high enough to let him peer down into the cylinder.

“I chinned it up,” Terry said later with a laugh.

He did indeed.

Terry then cut the final two strands before holding up the net and waving it aloft as Bulldogs fans massed around the basket cheered and captured the moment on their cellphones.

Thanks to a sometimes scintillating, sometimes frightening 68-63 victory over San Diego State on Saturday afternoon at the Thomas & Mack Center, Fresno State now stands above the rest of the Mountain West in men’s basketball.

Pinch yourselves.

“Greatest feeling I’ve had in my whole basketball career,” said senior guard Marvelle Harris, the regular-season Player of the Year and tournament MVP.

“It’s a big win for the program, community, fans, everyone, and it’s just a great feeling. You’re overwhelmed and you just kind of … unbelievable.”

Unbelievable. That’s the word rattling around the brains of success-starved Bulldogs fans up and down the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond.

Forget the lean years. Fresno State is about to gorge itself on a plate full of March Madness for the first time since the Jerry Tarkanian era.

“It was fun to take in because what we’ve been through as a team and all the ups and downs, we finally got over that hump,” senior guard Cezar Guerrero said. “We won the championship and we’re heading to the NCAA Tournament.”

The Bulldogs’ ninth consecutive victory proved the most remarkable of all, mostly because of how well San Diego State played.

No matter how many outside shots and freakish moves the Aztecs made – the 6-foot-10 Malik Pope provided a human-highlight reel – Fresno State never got discouraged. Never went away. Never stopped believing.

How else does one explain Julien Lewis? After clanking his first eight shots, the senior made the game’s biggest bucket with 1:36 left to put the Bulldogs ahead for good.

Lewis collected a steal under the San Diego State basket, then raced upcourt with Harris ahead of him and Aztecs guard Trey Kell standing in the way.

When Lewis noticed that Kell was sloughing off, he stopped his dribble outside the three-point arc, rose up and drained a jumper that was more pure than Ivory soap.

“When I took the shot and it came out of my hand, I knew it was good,” Lewis said. “I ran back. I’m like, ‘Man, that was unbelievable.’ 

Unbelievable. There’s that word again. Nothing else really fits.

Especially for anyone who remembers the program’s talent level when Terry took over in 2011. You think Mother Hubbard had a meager cupboard?

To borrow one of Terry’s pet phrases, C’mon now.

“We kept saying from Day One that we got here, ‘We want to win a Mountain West Conference championship.’ That’s what we were about,” Terry said. “I know some people didn’t believe that. ‘Coach Terry is really crazy – how are they going to do that?’

“That’s been our goal. That’s been our expectation from the beginning. We never shied away from that.”

For the victory to come against the conference’s regular-season champ and entrenched standard-bearer only sweetens the feeling.

Fresno State is typically the more athletic team whenever it takes the floor. Not when the Bulldogs play San Diego State.

So long and lithe are the Aztecs, good shots are nearly impossible to find.

Just look at the size discrepancy of the individual matchups: The 6-4 Lewis gave away 4 inches to Winston Shepard. The 6-4 Harris is 2 inches shorter than Dakarai Allen, and the 6-foot Guerrero is 4 shorter than Kell. Even Karachi Edo looks up at the 6-10 Skylar Spencer.

“I couldn’t even make a pass in the first half in the lane,” said Harris, who committed an uncharacteristic seven turnovers. “Those long arms were everywhere.”

The Aztecs kept Harris mostly under wraps until the all-time leading scorer in program history closed the first half with a flourish.

First, Harris drained a shot-clock beating three-pointer from Stephen Curry-like distance. On the next possession, he took the ball strong inside against Spencer.

Then, after a Paul Watson corner three tied the score, Harris dribbled downcourt on the final possession and swished a three with 2 seconds left to put Fresno State ahead 39-36.

What a way to take your first lead of the game.

The second half was tighter than a snare drum. Neither team led by more than six points. The Bulldogs got contributions up and down the roster (Jahmel Taylor and Watson each sank two key threes off the bench) before Lewis scored seven of his eight points in the final 1:36, including two pairs of three throws with 23 and six seconds remaining.

“I had ice in my veins,” Lewis said.

More like liquid nitrogen.

Now that the Bulldogs have reached a height few expected, the question becomes how far they can ascend.

Exactly how high up does this ladder go?

“The limits are as far as we want them to be,” Harris said. “Right now I would say I’m happy but not content. That was a great feeling, but now I want more. I’m not settling for that, and we’re not settling for that. We want more.”

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