Fresno State point guard Jaron Hopkins and guard Jahmel Taylor were finally enrolled in graduate school Wednesday morning, just in time to be driven down to Viejas Arena to face off against San Diego State.
Things at first were much too easy – for the Aztecs. They got into the paint, to the free throw line. They built a double-digit lead six minutes into the second half.
The Bulldogs turned the tide by mixing in some zone at the defensive end, of all things, and did more than just get back in it. They won the game 77-73 with a huge boost from sophomore Nate Grimes, leaving all of the follies back in Fresno.
“We’ve actually been working on our zone,” coach Rodney Terry said. “It was just a matter of us finding an opportune time to do and tonight was that night for us.
“They were doing a great job of getting us back on our heels. They have big strong guards that can finish and we were putting those guys at the foul line. We had to see if we could protect the elbows and make them make some contested shots.”
Fresno State (14-6, 4-3 in the MW) got a peek at the lead with 6:49 to go, but got it and held it at the 2:11 mark when Ray Bowles Jr. backed his way into the paint, got fouled and hit a pair of free throws. The Bulldogs led by four, one, three, one. With 34 seconds to go it was two, 75-73, after Hopkins hit one of two foul shots.
The Aztecs called a timeout with 29.9 seconds remaining and got a run at the rim, as they had all game. But this time Grimes was there, waiting on Devin Watson at the end of a drive.
Grimes, who started the second half after scoring five points and grabbing four rebounds in just nine minutes in the first half, swatted away the shot and kept it in play.
“He had an amazing game tonight,” Bowles said. “He was a game-changer, for sure. That last block down there, that was huge. You don’t know what can happen if he makes that basket, Nate played a great game.”
Deshon Taylor grabbed the ball, was fouled and hit two more free throws. The Bulldogs were clear after getting big plays one through nine including Hopkins and Jahmel Taylor.
On Tuesday, questions loomed about whether Hopkins and Jahmel Taylor, both Fresno State graduates, would be able to play Wednesday because they hadn’t been accepted to graduate school. The spring semester had started Tuesday, but they weren’t enrolled in school.
“I’ve never been through anything like that with myself or any of my teammates,” Bowles said. “That’s the first time I’ve ever witnessed anything like that. But they came here. They didn’t worry about that. They just focused on the game and the team and that’s what it’s all about. Getting wins, focusing on the team and playing together.”
Deshon Taylor finished with 22 points, five rebounds and three assists. Grimes had a career-high 15 points with 10 rebounds, one assists and four blocks.
Bowles had 13, Bryson Williams had 11. Sam Bittner knocked down a huge corner 3-pointer with 4:56 to go that tied the score at 68.
Hopkins had six points, seven rebounds and three assists. Jahmel Taylor scored three points with two rebounds and two assists.
The Bulldogs needed all of it after that first half when they couldn’t stop San Diego State from getting to the basket, other than fouling to put them at the free throw line.
The Aztecs attempted 21 foul shots in the first half – in conference play, three Fresno State opponents had fewer free throws in full games and two others weren’t far off. Boise State shot 33 free throws against the Bulldogs, Utah State 24, Air Force 22, New Mexico 19 and Nevada and Colorado State shot 18.
The Bulldogs did catch a break in that the Aztecs hit only 13 of 21, 61.9 percent.
But in the second half, Fresno State made them work for points.
“This is a great resilient team,” Deshon Taylor said. “We’re going to keep fighting no matter what.
“The zone, we had worked on it a little bit. We just wanted to make sure they took contested shots and then we just have to rebound after that, and it worked out for us.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT AIR FORCE
- Saturday: 1 p.m. at Clune Arena
- TV/radio: AT&T Sports Net/KFIG (AM 940)
- Records: Bulldogs 14-6, 4-3 Mountain West; Falcons 8-10, 2-4
- Of note: The Falcons hit just 39.7 percent of their shots and were out-rebounded by a 49-37 margin, but won at Colorado State on Wednesday 76-71, their second win in a row. Air Force went into that game off a victory over San Jose State. The Falcons were ranked last in the Mountain West in field goal percentage defense, but allowed Colorado State to hit just 37 percent of their shots. The Rams ended the game hitting just 4 of 18 shots. Air Force opponents had been knocking them down at a 47.6 percent clip. Fresno State was 25 of 47 (53.2 percent) in a 71-59 victory over the Falcons, Dec. 30, 2017 at the Save Mart Center. Deshon Taylor led the Bulldogs with 18 points in that game and Ray Bowles Jr. added 16.