The challenge was taller than Fresno State could’ve imagined.
Oh, sure. You can look on the lineup card and see Utah center Jakob Poeltl stands 7 feet tall. Seven feet is just a number, right?
Not when you have to defend him with players 4 and 5 inches shorter. Not when you have to keep him off the glass. Not when every time you take the ball inside, your shot gets altered by long arms that seemingly scrape the Pepsi Center roof.
Fresno State found itself short in stature and short on results Thursday night, bowing to Utah 80-69 on Thursday night in the program’s first NCAA Tournament game since 2001.
“He’s a great player,” said Bulldogs senior Marvelle Harris, who scored 24 points in his final college game. “We knew it was going to be a challenge for us. We knew trying to jump up and use athleticism wasn’t going to be enough against (Poeltl). You have to put a body on him.”
Problem is, Fresno State didn’t have a body that size. Seven-footers might grow as tall as trees, but they don’t grow on them.
We were getting smashed on the glass pretty hard.
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry, whose team was outrebounded 38-15
Utah’s length continually frazzled and frustrated the Bulldogs. It forced them into poor possessions and uncharacteristic mistakes.
The confident, assured Fresno State team that entered on a nine-game winning streak didn’t make an appearance until the second half. Until then, the Bulldogs looked timid, confused and a little fatigued.
Afterward, the feeling among the players and coaches was that they gave away the first 20 minutes while trailing by 11 points at halftime.
“In tournament games you can’t play like that,” Harris said. “Need to sustain it for 40 minutes.”
Compared to the first half, the second was a massive improvement. Fresno State just couldn’t keep it going.
Propelled by a 10-0 run the Bulldogs even surged to a 48-47 lead with 10:32 left on a Julien Lewis three-pointer. But Utah answered with a quick 7-0 run (and eventually 19-2) that unraveled all that fine sewing.
“They did a great job trying to make us try to guard the ball screens,” Lewis said. “That takes a lot of energy out of you when you have to (defend that) every single time coming down.”
What 14th-seeded Fresno State had to do to upset the No. 3 Utes was evident long before tip-off.
The Bulldogs needed a supreme effort on the boards to combat Utah’s size. Instead, they were outrebounded 38-15 including 15-5 on the offensive end.
In fact, Poeltl (18 boards) outrebounded Fresno State all by his lonesome.
18 rebounds by Utah’s Jakob Poeltl – three more than Fresno State had as a team
“The big fella had seven offensive rebounds in the first half alone,” Bulldogs coach Rodney Terry said. “We were getting smashed on the glass pretty hard.”
Fresno State needed a great shooting night from outside. Instead, the Bulldogs were frustratingly inconsistent – 36 percent in the first half followed by 60.7 percent in the second.
Fresno State needed a clean, mistake free game. Instead, the Bulldogs committed 14 turnovers – including eight in the first half.
That’s more than they had in the last eight games and 17 of the past 18.
“We were a little deflated by all the turnovers, and they beat us to a lot of second-chance points,” assistant coach Byron Jones said. “We made a lot of uncommon mistakes we hadn’t made all year.”
The size mismatch was evident from the opening tip.
On the Bulldogs’ first possession they sent the ball to Karachi Edo in the post. The 6-foot-6 forward pump faked but couldn’t get Poeltl to leave his feet. His flat shot clanked off the rim.
A few minutes later Terrell Carter used his ample 6-8, 285-frame to create space between him and Poeltl. Carter missed a layup, then committed his second foul and took a seat on the bench.
When Carter returned, he once again got the ball in the post against Poeltl. This time, the sophomore didn’t even bother looking to score. He passed to the perimeter.
Utah led 33-22 at halftime, and the score would’ve been a lot more lopsided had Paul Watson not chipped in nine points off the bench including two late threes.
College basketball fans watching on TV must’ve wondered: How in the heck did this team win 25 games and the Mountain West Tournament?
The Bulldogs played more like themselves in the second half. They forced turnovers (20 of them total) and collected steals (15, including six by Cullen Russo.)
They just couldn’t overcome Poeltl’s size – or prevent the Utes from shooting 65 percent in the second half.
“I’ve guarded 7-footers before, but he’s a skilled 7-footer,” said Edo, who drew the rough defensive assignment. “He’ll pump-fake you all day. He’ll try to get into your body. He drew a lot of fouls on everyone.
“The 7-footer is going to keep doing his thing and I respect him, but we’re going to learn from this.”
Despite the obvious disappointment, the Bulldogs emerged with their heads held high. Together in the locker room, they talked about how far the team had come and the new set of standards that have been set for the program.
While the Bulldogs lose seniors Harris, Lewis and Cezar Guerrero to graduation (all are on track to graduate), they’ll be replaced by a new crop anxious to leave a mark.
“This really sets the tone. This is the standard we’ll be holding ourselves to next year,” said Russo, one of the top returning players along with Edo and Watson. “We got here. Unfortunately we didn’t go as far as we wanted to, but next year there’s no reason not to get back here.”
Next time, a little more size would come in handy. Utah and its 7-foot center proved too tall an obstacle.