Fresno State got a victory at UNLV, winning 69-66, which is a big deal in itself. The Bulldogs had beaten the Rebels on their home floor only once in 18 games, and this one was their conference opener, and victories there had also been very few and very far between – it was the Bulldogs’ first since 2011.
But, to coach Rodney Terry, the Fresno State men’s basketball team got so much more out of Wednesday night’s win, surviving a foul fest in the second half in which the Bulldogs were tagged 19 times and all five starters spent extended periods on the bench as a nine-point lead evaporated even with UNLV hitting only 1 of 11 shots through that stretch.
“We needed a really good grit game against a good team in a good environment,” Terry said. “We’ve been in some really good environments, and we’ve been really close this year and haven’t been able to get over the hump, haven’t been able to get stops against good teams.
“Our guys did that. They stayed tough. They worked the game. I thought we got a lot of 50-50 balls. We played hard. We kept playing.”
Fresno State returns home to host New Mexico (8-6, 1-0 MW) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Save Mart Center.
As Terry said, the Bulldogs didn’t get it done when within 72-68 with 1:51 to play at Oregon after trailing in the second half by 18 and losing 78-73, or within 71-70 with 2:57 to play at Arizona and losing 85-72.
But at UNLV, the Bulldogs (10-4, 1-0 Mountain West) went nine deep and got it done. Julien Lewis gave them nine big minutes off the bench in the second half, Cullen Russo played 11 and Lionel Ellison five.
Fresno State clinched the victory with huge plays at the end, with Torren Jones tipping in a missed free throw over 7-foot Rebels freshman Stephen Zimmerman to give the Bulldogs a 67-66 lead with 25 seconds remaining and then grabbing a rebound at the other end. Jones was fouled, made both free throws, and then Russo blocked a last-second shot at a tying three-pointer by Patrick McCaw.
But that depth proved crucial getting there and should serve the Bulldogs going forward in conference play. They get three of the next four at Save Mart Center starting with New Mexico on Saturday and then Nevada and San Jose State before and after a trip to Boise State.
“It just shows how important every guy on this team is,” said guard Marvelle Harris, who picked up his fourth foul with 9:51 remaining and spent the next 4:03 on the bench. “We’re not going to count on one player. We’re going to depend on a group of guys. It’s the whole team. Everybody plays a role, and that just shows how complete of a team we are. It’s great.”
Anyone out there? – The Bulldogs at 10-4 are off to their best start since 2006-07, when they opened 12-2, and Terry is hoping that Fresno is paying attention.
“We played really hard tonight,” he said. “I thought our guys got on the floor for loose balls. … Hopefully our community back in Fresno is watching and they can appreciate the hard effort and hard work, and hopefully they’ll come out. We’ll need them in a big way on Saturday (against New Mexico). We’re playing a really good team on our home court, and we’re going to need our sixth man big time in this game.”
In nine home games, Fresno State has averaged only 5,705 in attendance.
On the rebound – The Bulldogs went into the game leading the Mountain West in rebounding margin at plus-6.9, which was quite a switch for a team that had been a minus-3.2, minus-2.9 and minus-3.6 over the past three seasons and had some very poor games in conference play.
They were outrebounded by 12 by the Rebels (43-31), but Jones had the two biggest of the game in the final minute, the tip-in over Zimmerman and the rebound of the missed three-pointer by Jerome Seagears.
Both were huge plays, but the tip-in put the Bulldogs in the lead. And Jones was able to get that tip without fouling – one of his four fouls came in a similar situation when he made very slight contact going after a missed free throw.
“I feel like I crash every time … sometimes I crash too much,” Jones said, with a smile. “But that time it paid off in our favor. I’m glad I crashed, definitely. They are big, but I’ve faced a few big guys like that in my career and know how to maneuver around them a little bit.”
The junior forward finished with 18 points and eight rebounds, five coming at the offensive end.
In sickness and in health – Harris did not attend the Bulldogs’ shoot-around Wednesday morning – he was back at the team hotel, resting and trying to fight off the flu. He didn’t do well there and was still visibly less than 100 percent when the game was over. But he helped turn the momentum in the first half when the Bulldogs were struggling to get much done at the offensive end.
The senior guard didn’t make his first basket until there was just 5:10 remaining, but he scored eight of the Bulldogs’ final 10 points in the first half and then 13 of their first 19 to start the second half.
“I just went to the sidelines and composed myself, took a deep breath and tried not to force things,” said Harris, who finished with a game-high 22 points. “I knew my teammates had my back. I can count on them. I just played my game and the shots started falling.”
Harris, coincidentally, was not feeling well before a game last season at Nevada. He ended up hitting 14 of 23 shots and scoring 40 points with three rebounds and steals and two assists.
Et cetera – The victory by Fresno State was its first in a conference opener since 2011. The Bulldogs were 0-3 in Mountain West openers, losing at New Mexico last season before rattling off four consecutive wins. They lost to UNLV in 2014 when starting 1-7 and lost to San Diego State in 2013 when starting 1-6.
▪ UNLV turned over the ball 21 times, leading to 33 Fresno State points. The Bulldogs had 12 turnovers, the Rebels scoring just seven points off them. “To me, the biggest part of the game was going to be taking care of the basketball, and I think we did a really good job,” Terry said.
▪ Fresno State also did a good job with its transition defense, limiting the Rebels to just five fast-break points.
▪ The Bulldogs took a long bus ride back home after the game. “I’m happy.” Harris said. “We get to talk on the way back now.”
▪ The Bulldogs are now 2-17 in Las Vegas, both wins coming under Terry. The Bulldogs’ first win at the Thomas & Mack Center was a 61-52 decision on March 9, 2013.
▪ Fresno State hit just 11 of 33 shots in the first half (33.3 percent) but was 14 of 24 in the second (58.3 percent). It was the Bulldogs’ best half shooting the ball to this point – they were 19 of 33 (57.6 percent) in the first half of an 85-72 loss at Arizona.
▪ Jones was at the line with 3:58 remaining and the Bulldogs down 61-60. He missed both shots. But they had been forgotten by the time he got back there with 11 seconds remaining and the Bulldogs up 67-66. “I started the game off pretty good, and then I missed those two,” he said. “I knew those at the end of the game were crucial so I got to the line and took my time, tried to get them in there. It’s kind of short-term memory and knowing what the goal is and the goal is to win. I knew my team needed me to make those free throws.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada