The first two times that Fresno State matched up against UNLV this season, they were close, separated by four points and five. The Bulldogs won both, but the third one, on Wednesday in a semifinal of the Mountain West Conference Tournament, it only got that way through some lapses by them late.
With a trip to the championship game on the line, the second-seeded Bulldogs turned every Rebels’ strength inside out, pushing the lead to 20 in the third quarter before getting away with a 66-60 victory late Wednesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“I thought we did a really good job starting the game and then starting that second half, too, we made a little run and got the score up where we felt pretty comfortable,” coach Jaime White said.
“But, you know, UNLV is a great team. Brooke Johnson, the Gonzalezes (Dakota and Dylan), (Aley) Rohde, really hard to guard. Long, athletic and I thought they did a great job. I really just thought we did a good job inside rebounding especially.”
That was key for the Bulldogs, especially early in the game.
Sixth-seeded UNLV had led the conference in rebounding margin at plus-7.5, well ahead of Utah State in second at plus-4.0. Fresno State was sixth at plus-0.3, but finished with a 42-35 edge on the Rebels that was plus-13 at halftime and plus-11 after three quarters. At the break, the Bulldogs had a 13-0 advantage in second-chance points.
The Rebels also were ranked fourth in the conference in scoring defense, allowing 59 points per game, and the Bulldogs looked like they would race right by that number when putting up 50 by the end of three quarters.
But some troubles at the offensive end that stretched into the fourth quarter allowed the Rebels to cut a deficit that was 49-29 at the 3:10 mark in the third to 62-60 with 27 seconds remaining. Fresno State appeared to have stabilized a couple of times when the Rebels cut the lead to eight and then seven with 2:47 remaining as the 6-foot-4 Rohde banked in a three-pointer, with Toni Smith and Shauqunna Collins answering UNLV scores.
Though the Bulldogs (21-10) lost a good bit of their lead, they retained their composure.
“We’ve been in many situations like this before, tight games, and there has only been a few games in our conference where it has been a huge lead, it has always been within 10 points,” Bulldogs’ guard Brittany Aikens said. “We just call back to that. I wasn’t nervous. I was calm and so were my teammates.”
UNLV (18-14) kept charging and the Bulldogs struggled through some turnovers before Alex Furr hit a pair of free throws with 14 seconds to go and Moriah Faulk two more with 5 seconds remaining to send the Bulldogs into the final where they will play top-seeded and No. 22-ranked Colorado State.
Smith led the Bulldogs with 18 points and 12 rebounds, Bego Faz Davalos had 13 and eight and Faulk 10 and nine. Nikki Wheatley scored 13 to lead the Rebels. Johnson, a sophomore and ex-Hanford High star, scored seven to go with three rebounds and three assists for UNLV but was held to 2-of-10 shooting.
“I thought UNLV did a great job defending,” White said. “They came out and started to trap a little bit on the wings and then we missed a couple, so we were transitioning and we didn’t really transition the best. I thought we were OK, even with a 10-point lead when we lost some of it, but less than 10 I was getting a little nervous and then we had a couple of turnovers. We’ve never turned the ball over like that in a late-game situation. I think maybe we celebrated a little too early.”
Fresno State played the Rams once during the regular season, losing 68-55 on March 1 in Fort Collins after leading by one at the end of three quarters.
“I felt like we played well for about three quarters there, in really a hard place to play and (against) a great team,” White said. “Obviously, you love to see No. 1 and No. 2 in a championship and I think it will be a great game. It’s just all about matching up and our strategy to how we’re going to approach it and it’s just exciting. As a coach, it’s just fun.
“You have to respect what they’ve done and we definitely do, but you have to respect what we’ve done. I think we’ve played some big teams in our preseason, we’ve played a lot of tight games and we’ve come out on top, so I expect it to be a really good game.”
Colorado State 60, New Mexico 42 – The Rams took control in the second quarter behind Elin Gustavsson and Keyora Wharry, the former Edison High and Fresno City College star, and went on to their 26th consecutive victory in the first semifinal.
Gustavsson hit 7 of 9 shots in scoring 18 points and Wharry was 7 of 11 in adding 15 points with four rebounds and four steals.
Colorado State (30-1), up one after a quarter, outscored the Lobos (17-14) 18-6 in the second. The Rams hit 8 of 14 shots while limiting New Mexico to 2 of 12.
The Rams advanced to the Mountain West championship game for the third time in school history (2001 and ’14).
MOUNTAIN WEST CHAMPIONSHIP: NO. 2 FRESNO STATE VS. NO. 1 COLORADO STATE
- Friday: Noon at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas
- Records: Bulldogs 21-10, Rams 30-1
- Webcast: Mountain West Network (themwc.com)