Nate Grimes was on the floor for 15 minutes in the Fresno State Bulldogs’ 89-80 victory over New Mexico, which got them back even in the Mountain West Conference at 3-3.
He didn’t get a shot. He didn’t even get a look at one, really.
But the 6-foot-8 redshirt sophomore continued to reward the patience that both he and coach Rodney Terry and his staff have shown, proving again that he can be one of the best bench players in the conference.
The Bulldogs ripped it at the offensive end, hitting a Save Mart Center record 65.3 percent of their shots and a school-record 75.0 percent at the 3-point line. But when they needed stops to gain some separation down the stretch, it was Grimes who came up with the huge defensive play.
Up four with 6:46 remaining, the Lobos’ Makuach Maluach, who came in averaging 7.2 points a game and got 21 against the Bulldogs, found himself free under the basket.
A make there and it is a one-possession game.
But Grimes closed and swatted the shot by Maluach, then snatched the rebound. The Bulldogs pushed the ball and Deshon Taylor got fouled going to the basket, the two foul shots extending a Fresno State run to 6-0. It would get to 14-0 and that was about it.
“He gave us a presence in there and any time you have a guy that can alter shots, block shots, back there it makes guys coming in there think about it,” Terry said.
“It’s something we haven’t had since we’ve been here, but when you have a guy back there it’s in the back of your mind. We play against shot blockers and we know. When you drive in there you’re thinking about, ‘Hey, I have to make a two-foot play for myself or for a teammate.’ He was big. he was a difference maker.”
Grimes has been all season, playing limited minutes. He has played in 16 of 19 games, an average of 11.3 minutes per game. But he went into the weekend leading the conference in rebounds per 40 minutes at 20.5 and it was not even close. The top five:
▪ Nate Grimes (Fresno State) 20.5
▪ Brandon McCoy (UNLV) 14.4
▪ Shakur Juiston (UNLV) 13.5
▪ Klay Stall (Utah State) 13.5
▪ Marcus Dickinson (Boise State) 13.3
Grimes also is sixth in the Mountain West with 23 blocked shots (1.4 per game) even though the five players ahead of him all have played more than twice the number of minutes than the 181 that Grimes has logged.
What’s that look like?
▪ Alan Herndon (Wyoming) 2.3 per game in 588 minutes
▪ Cody Martin (Nevada) 1.6 in 671 minutes
▪ Che Bob (Colorado State) 1.6 in 479 minutes
▪ Brandon McCoy (UNLV) 1.5 in 470 minutes
▪ Joe Furstinger (New Mexico) 1.5 in 489 minutes
The thing that stood out to Terry on Saturday, though, was Grimes’ attitude and approach, much more than the five rebounds and two blocked shots.
There was a point in the first half when he was sent to the scorer’s table to check into the game for center Terrell Carter II, then was pulled back to the bench.
“We pulled him right back from the table and said, ‘Hey, leave Terrell in there, he’s going (good) right now and we’ll find a way to get you in there,’” Terry said. “He never once had a frown, never looked to complain: ‘Why am I not going into the game?’
“He sat right there with coach (Jerry) Wainwright, watched the game, understood what he had to do when his time was called. He came in and gave us an unbelievable lift.”
Grimes, who was a redshirt in his first season at Fresno State, played in only 13 games last season. He wasn’t even traveling in Mountain West Conference play until the Bulldogs lost Karachi Edo with an ankle injury in a four-overtime loss at Wyoming.
He jumped on a plane the next day and played 15 minutes off the bench in a loss at Colorado State, hitting 3 of 4 shots in scoring eight points with two rebounds and one blocked shot in his first game in nearly two months.
Grimes went from a Dec. 14 victory over Holy Names to that Feb. 11 loss at Colorado State without seeing the floor.
He played in only three games after that, on the floor for a total of 13 minutes.
Considering there have been 400 to 500 players transfer schools after the past few seasons looking for more playing time or a better shot at it, the Bulldogs might count themselves fortunate to have been able to hold on to a valuable piece to a puzzle still coming together.
“Nate was huge,” Terry said. “He was the difference in turning the game around, especially from a defensive standpoint.”
The Bulldogs hit 65.3 percent of their shots in beating New Mexico was not only a Save Mart Center record, it also was the highest by a Mountain West team this season and the highest by a conference team against another Division I opponent since 2014.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT SAN DIEGO STATE
- Wednesday: 8 p.m. at Viejas Arena
- TV/radio: ESPNU or ESPN3/KFIG (AM 940)
- Records: Bulldogs 13-6, 3-3 Mountain West; Aztecs 11-5, 3-2
- Of note: San Diego State lost 83-80 at Boise State on Saturday. The Aztecs are 7-1 at home, the loss 63-62 to Cal on Dec. 9. Fresno State won at Viejas Arena last season 63-55 and has won three of the past four matchups including 68-63 in the championship game of the 2016 Mountain West Tournament. The Aztecs again are one of the top defensive teams in the league, but had no answer for Chandler Hutchison in the loss at Boise State. Hutchison hit 15 of 21 shots in scoring 44 points, the most by a player in the Mountain West this season. San Diego State still ranks first in the league in scoring defense (65.8 ppg), field goal percentage defense (40.1) and fourth in 3-point field goal percentage (32.6).