The Fresno State men’s basketball team rallied to pull out a season-opening 69-66 victory against Pepperdine on Friday night at Save Mart Center in what was a big test for coach Rodney Terry’s squad after the Bulldogs were blown out by the Waves just a year ago.
Here’s how the action unfolded:
What happened – The Bulldogs were not looking very good with eight minutes remaining. They were down only four points but had hit 20 of 54 shots (37 percent) and were awful at the free-throw line at 7 of 16 (43.8 percent). The offense was Marvelle Harris, and that was about it. The senior guard had 18 points at that point and finished with a game-high 23.
But from there, Fresno State hit 5 of its last 9 shots (55.6 percent) and 10 of its last 14 free throws (71.4 percent) while scuttling the Waves at the other end of the floor.
Pepperdine got only four shots in the final 7:56 and turned over the ball seven times. The Waves also made only 8 of 15 free throws after starting the game hitting 14 of 19.
Digging in on defense – Fresno State capped its eight-minute shutdown on the Waves with two big steals, the first by backup point guard Lionel Ellison and the second by Paul Watson.
Pepperdine point guard Jeremy Major hit a long 3-pointer with 11 seconds remaining to bring the Waves to within 67-66, and they quickly fouled Julien Lewis, who hit only the second of two free throws. But with the Bulldogs pressing, Ellison got into Major, got his attention off the basketball for a split second and came up with a steal.
Ellison was fouled and made the first of two free throws, putting the Bulldogs up 69-66 with eight seconds remaining. Pepperdine forward Stacy Davis secured the rebound and made his way up the floor, but Watson reached in and took away the basketball. The Waves got no final shot.
“I think our defense, if you look at who was out there for us, not to take away from what Cezar (Guerrero) did for us because I thought Cezar payed really hard for us as well, but you’ve got Lionel (Ellison) out there, you have Julien Lewis out there,” Fresno State coach Rodney Terry said. “Marvelle does a good job of being a good position defender. You’ve got Torren (Jones) out there, who can rebound the basketball.
“I thought it was a really good defensive lineup out there for us and I thought our guys dug down and got stops when we had to have stops and made them take difficult shots. We have some length. I thought our guys dug down, they were engaged and they finished possessions. You have to finish possessions with rebounds.”
Fresno State forced 18 turnovers in the game, had 15 steals and blocked eight shots.
“I said to this group this summer: ‘I think we can be the best defensive team in our league and if you’re the best defensive team in our league then you’re probably one of the better teams in the country,’ ” Terry said. “We have all the ingredients to do that and that’s going to make the growth curve for this team have a very high ceiling if we continue to build on that.”
Free tickets – More than 1,200 tickets were sold through the Bulldogs’ special offer – four tickets for $13 – and the announced attendance at Save Mart Center was 7,827.
“We had a great crowd,” Terry said. “The community came out. They’re excited about this team. They want to see this team. We really appreciate what they did for us tonight.
“We hope they can come back again on Monday for us (against Lamar) because they were the big difference in this game. Our guys fed off that energy.”
The Bulldogs are running another special for the game against Lamar. Anyone that shows they follow Fresno State athletics on any of its social media accounts – Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vine or Snapchat – will get into the game for free.
The free tickets will be available Monday at the box office at Save Mart Center.
Nice job, Mr. Jones – The 6-foot-9 forward had a sizeable debut with the Bulldogs, scoring 13 points with 14 rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocked shots.
“It felt like home, something I was used to coming from JUCO (Midland College),” he said. “I felt like that’s what I needed to bring to the Bulldogs. That’s what coach recruited me for – rebounds and being a presence in the post. I feel like I did my job.”
Half right – The Bulldogs were down by eight (38-30) at halftime and after taking a lead with 9:12 to go on a layup by Harris fell back by eight again with 4:26 to go.
Last season, Fresno State was 1-17 when trailing at the half.
“It was just not getting down on ourselves,” Jones said. “Like coach said: We have a good group of guys that don’t give up on each other and I felt like bringing Lionel in, he was the glue to that run we had coming back in the second half.”
Making a point – Ellison entered the game for the final time with 6:35 remaining – the Bulldogs down by six and about to go down eight on a jump shot by Davis – and proved the depth behind Guerrero is much better than it was a year ago.
Ellison had two steals, two assists and made three free throws in that stretch to help the Bulldogs climb back and into the lead.
“Lionel is a winner. He came from a winning program,” Terry said. “At game time, he’s a guy that can climb in guys and get stops when he needs to and make the right decisions (with the ball).”
Et cetera – Harris, the Preseason Player of the Year in the Mountain West Conference, on the victory: “Everybody did their job tonight. People who were to screen screened, people who were to take shots took the shot, people made the right passes. Everybody just played together. We played as a unit tonight.”
▪ The 23-point game was the 16th time Harris has topped 20 in his career.
▪ Pepperdine point guard Jeremy Major, who is 5-foot-11, led the Waves with 10 rebounds.
▪ After making only 7 of their first 16 free throws, the Bulldogs hit 10 of their last 14. “That was just a lack of concentration on our part,” Harris said. “We practice free throws over and over. We always have to make free throws before we leave practice, so we just have to step up to the line and make shots.”
▪ Davis, a player of the year candidate in the West Coast Conference, scored 15 points and had five rebounds. He hit only 6 of 16 shots (37.5 percent).
▪ Fresno State had nine players play and all nine scored. “I tell you what, it’s a strength of our team, having a number of different guys that can come in,” Terry said of the Bulldogs’ depth. “The thing that we’ve really tried to instill in these guys is play as hard as you can play. Don’t pace yourself out on the floor. We have enough guys that can come in. You’ve done your job – you’ve gone as hard as you can go. The next guy comes in and he’s going to keep up that same pace as well. Having a bench and having guys believe in each other right now is a huge step for this team.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Up next for ’Dogs
FRESNO STATE VS. LAMAR
- Monday: 7 p.m. at Save Mart Center
- Records: Bulldogs 1-0, Cardinals 0-1