Fresno State

Bulldogs get Air Force in MW Tournament quarterfinals, and will try not to relive nightmare

The Fresno State men’s basketball team will begin the Mountain West Tournament against an opponent that the Bulldogs lost to during the regular season.

Air Force, seeded sixth in the conference tournament, defeated No. 6 San Jose State 87-56 on Wednesday to earn a date against No. 3 Fresno State at 8:30 p.m. Thursday.

The Falcons (14-17) have a losing record, but they got the best of the Bulldogs (22-8) back on Feb. 20 when Air Force came into the Save Mart Center and won 64-61 in the teams’ only regular-season meeting.

NO. 6 AIR FORCE VS. NO. 3 FRESNO STATE

Against San Jose State on Wednesday, Air Force was down by 13 points not even four minutes into the first-round match up of the Mountain West Conference Tournament.

But the Falcons worked their back and went on to breeze by the Spartans 87-56.

They will play the Bulldogs on Thursday in the last of four quarterfinal games at the Thomas & Mack Center, and have to like the match up.

Air Force’s defense was a nightmare for the Bulldogs at the offensive end.

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Fresno State guard Braxton Huggins celebrates after hitting a 3-point basket in the Bulldogs’ 121-81 victory over San Jose State’s Saturday, March 9, 2019 in Fresno. Huggins hit a school-record 10 threes in scoring a career-high 34 points in the victory. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

The Bulldogs hit just 35.1 percent of their shots and had to hit seven of their last 11 shots just to get there; with four minutes to play Fresno State was 13 of 46 (28.3 percent).

Included in that woeful shooting: they were 6 of 17 on layups, 35.3 percent.

They had a season-low nine assists.

They also had just 16 points in the paint, the fewest against Air Force in conference play to that point.

There is potentially some good news for Fresno State in having played Air Force just once so far.

Most teams to play the Falcons twice this season have won that second game, whether they won or lost the first meeting.

There is time to dissect film, make corrections.

San Diego State, UNLV and Boise State all lost to Air Force in a first meeting and won the second. Utah State, Colorado State and Nevada were able to sweep the Falcons.

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Fresno State forward Sam Bittner and the Bulldogs hit only 35.1 percent of their shots in a 64-61 loss to Air Force Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019., snapping a three-game winning streak. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

The only teams to lose a second match up against Air Force were San Jose State and Wyoming, which were 1-14 and 4-14 and the No. 11 and No. 10 seeds in the tournament.

The fix for the Bulldogs is not so much match ups, it’s more their approach. Fresno State, which had won three games in a row and four of five going into that game back in February at the Save Mart Center, played with a glaring lack of physicality on both ends of the floor.

The basics

Fresno State: 22-8 and 13-5; third in MW

Air Force: 14-17 and 8-10; sixth in MW

  • Coach: Dave Pilipovich, 98-130 in eighth season

Series: Bulldogs lead 19-7

Tip off: 8:30 p.m., Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas

TV/Radio: CBS Sports Network/940AM ESPN

Probable starters

Fresno State

G Deshon Taylor 18.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4.8 apg

G Braxton Huggins 19.3, 4.3, 1.7

G Noah Blackwell 8.4, 2.4, 3.6

F Sam Bittner 6.9, 4.8, 2.2

F Nate Grimes 11.6, 9.5, 0.8

Air Force

G Caleb Morris 7.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.4 apg

G Chris Joyce 7.2, 3.2, 1.5

G A.J. Walker 8.8, 1.8, 2.3

F Lavelle Scottie 15.6, 5.6, 1.4

F Ryan Swan 12.7, 7.2, 1.8

Shooters eye

The 3-point shot obviously is a big part of the game for the Bulldogs – they get 41.7 percent of their points on threes, 10th in the nation, and went into the tournament leading the conference in 3-pointers made (207) and 3-point field goal percentage (39.1).

That percentage led the league by a long way, too. UNLV was second at 36.8.

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Air Force forward Lavelle Scottie is leading the Falcons in scoring with 15.6 points per game. No. 3 Fresno State and No. 6 Air Force play in a quarterfinal game at the Mountain West Conference Tournament Thursday March 14, 2019. Dougal Brownlie ASSOCIATED PRESS

The opponent makes a difference, but so can the venue. To the plus for Fresno State, it hit 15 threes at 51.7 percent last month when beating UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Huggins was 6 of 9, Blackwell was 3 of 5. In five career games at the Thomas & Mack between regular-season games against UNLV and the Mountain West Tournament, Taylor also has shot the ball fairly well from three, hitting 13 of 31 shots.

Will those minutes hurt?

With San Jose State hitting its first four shots, five of six and six of eight and jumping out to a 13-0 lead, Air Force might have to work a little harder than it expected to get to the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament.

The Falcons ended up getting 15 players into the game, but Walker and Swan still played 30 minutes, Joyce played 29.

Walker averaged 29.7 in conference play, Swan 29.0 and Joyce 21.9.

Scottie, the Falcons’ leading scorer, was in foul trouble early against the Spartans. He averaged 32.8 minutes per game in conference play and was on the floor for 23.

Quarters and out

The Air Force victory was only its fifth in 19 Mountain West Conference Tournaments.

The Falcons are now 5-3 in opening rounds, but in the quarterfinals they are 0-16 and a lot of those games haven’t been very close. Air Force lost 81-55 to No. 2 Colorado State in 2017, 80-68 to No. 1 Boise State in 2015, 72-56 to No. 3 UNLV in 2013 79-64 to No. 2 New Mexico in 2012 and 69-53 to No. 3 UNLV in 2011.

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
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