A challenge would come, Fresno State knew that. Even while knocking down shots at a ridiculous rate in the first half, it was always clear that things would tighten in Wednesday night’s Mountain West Conference game.
But when Utah State made its run, the Bulldogs had a response, making big plays at the defensive end to fuel a final surge of their own in a 61-52 victory Wednesday night at the Save Mart Center.
The Bulldogs had lost an 11-point lead 5-plus minutes into the second half and got away again by a bit, but with 12 miutes remaining the lead was just 44-43. The Aggies, though, did not make a shot for the next 6 minutes, with their only points in that stretch — two of them — coming at the free-throw line.
Utah State had hit its first five shots in the second half and seven of its first 11, but Fresno State cut them down right there. The Bulldogs forced two turnovers, harassed the Aggies into a 0-for-5 stretch, and were able to secure a victory that had for a time looked inevitable before becoming a bit uneasy.
“That’s where we were going to win the ball game,” coach Rodney Terry said. “When we had a tough time, it was when we didn’t have the defensive effort. When they made a run and came back all the way, it wasn’t our offense as much as it was our defense.
“It was simple. We had to guard better. We really did. We came into the huddle (at the under 12 timeout) and I said, ‘Hey guys, it’s not our offense, it’s all defense. We’re going to win this game on the defensive end. This has nothing to do with what we’re doing offensively. We’ll make shots. We’ll figure it out. But we have to dig in there defensively because they are going at us at another level right now.’ ”
Fresno State (7-9, 2-1 Mountain West) did that and weathered well a brief stretch when Marvelle Harris, who is their leading scorer and against the Aggies had a game-high 18 points, went to the bench after picking up a third foul. Julien Lewis came up with two big scores there, knocking down a jump shot and then scoring off a steal that put the Bulldogs up 54-45 with 6:52 to play.
With that, the Bulldogs went on to put together one of their most complete games of the season.
Fresno State had hit better than 50% of its shots in only two of its first 15 games and those two were against highly suspect competition in Bristol University and Saint Katherine College. Against Division I opponents, the Bulldogs had failed to make 40% six times, including the past two, a loss at New Mexico and a victory over No. 25 San Diego State.
But they came out and eviscerated the Aggies’ zone, hitting 57.7% in the first half and that was only after a frigid stretch in the final 4 minutes.
The Bulldogs hit 15 of their first 20 before missing their final six, with forward Alex Davis hitting all five of his shots in scoring 10 points and Harris 4 of 7 to also finish the half with 10. They moved the ball, got open shots, created others and were able to convert just about all of them, this against a team that had allowed opponents to hit at only a 37.4% clip and came in ranked second in the Mountain West in field-goal percentage defense.
Lewis ended up hitting 7 of 11 and had 15 points. Davis finished 7 of 7, including a loud dunk off a steal and behind-the-back feed by Emmanuel Owootoah.
“To be honest, I was kind of expecting it,” Davis said of the no-look pass. “I told him I was trailing, I said, ‘E … Emmanuel … I’m trailing, I’m trailing’ and you never know, he pulls tricks out of the hat all the time. I was expecting anything. I didn’t know it was going to be behind-the-back, but he did the pass and I just made sure I finished strong.”
Once the game tightened considerably, and very quickly at the start of the second half, the Bulldogs did as well.
“Our guys responded,” Terry said. “We came out and we finished possessions. It was big.”