Fresno State had been in spots before where the other guys got on a roll at the offensive end. It happened against Nevada, against Oregon, against Utah State, all losses. Often, opponents got into the paint and to the rim for easy baskets and that is where San Diego State was on Wednesday, playing downhill.
Of the Aztecs’ 13 first-half baskets, 10 came on layups or dunks. If not a shot at the rim, they were at the free throw line; 21 times in the first 20 minutes.
The Bulldogs to that point had shown no changeup, nothing to slow down an opponent, give them pause, make them think twice.
But coach Rodney Terry in the second half put into play some zone defense and that flexibility helped slow the Aztecs and sent the Bulldogs, down by as many as 10 points in the second half, on their way to a 77-73 victory at Viejas Arena.
The Bulldogs won back-to-back Mountain West games for the first time this season and moved into a tie for third place in the conference.
“We just needed to try to see if we could protect the elbows and make them make some contested shots and not give them anything at the foul line,” Terry said.
“We stole a couple of possessions in zone, which was big for us, and then we came back down at the offensive end and I thought our guys executed what we were trying to do.”
That, and more stellar play off the bench by Nate Grimes.
The 6-foot-8 sophomore entered the game at the 8:42 mark in the first half and had five points and four rebounds, cramming all that into nine minutes, and just kept going.
He started the second half and finished with a career-high 15 points, 10 rebounds, one assist and four blocked shots, the last of those sending the Bulldogs out of Viejas with their second win in a row in a building the Aztecs had won 123 of their past 139 games, an .885 winning percentage.
Fresno State (14-6, 4-3 MW) was up two after Jaron Hopkins hit one of two free throws inside of 30 seconds to play. Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher called a timeout.
San Diego State didn’t execute what Dutcher wanted, but ended up with a path to the basket nonetheless with Devin Watson slicing into the paint and to the rim.
Grimes was waiting. He swatted the shot away and kept it in play. Deshon Taylor came up with the rebound and San Diego State had little choice but to foul.
The free throws went down, the Bulldogs went up four.
“That last block down there, that was huge. You don’t know what can happen if he makes that basket,” Ray Bowles Jr. said.
“I felt we were going to score on that play,” Aztecs forward Jalen McDaniels said.
“To have a guy back there that can alter a shot or block a shot, it’s big,” Terry said. “Watson is a heck of a driver, now. He was getting to the paint whenever he wanted to.
“I think the most impressive part of that play was keeping the ball in bounds and giving us a chance to keep the ball.”
Hopkins and Jahmel Taylor didn’t travel with the team to San Diego on Tuesday because the two Fresno State graduates, both on the Mountain West all-academic team last spring, had not been admitted to grad school in time for the spring semester.
They were enrolled in school and certified Wednesday morning and spent more than six hours in a car driving to San Diego.
“Any time you have a distraction or you have some adversity that you have to try to battle through, I think it brings teams closer together and have a little more focused,” Terry said. “I thought our guys were focused in shoot-around and understanding that, ‘Hey, somebody has to step up.’ We didn’t know how these guys were going to respond coming off a six-hour ride down here.
“I think there was a heightened sense of urgency for everyone who traveled knowing that we didn’t know how these guys were going to respond to what they had endured over the past two days. I thought our team had a really good focus coming in here against a really good team.”
Taylor is now in the MBA program and Hopkins is pursuing a master’s in education.
About that zone
Fresno State had worked on its zone defense in practice, going back to the summer. But even then, there was no guarantee that the Bulldogs would ever give it a shot; Terry has almost exclusively played man-to-man defense.
But then came that first-half onslaught, the layups and the dunks and the 21 foul shots – more than New Mexico (19), Nevada (18) and Colorado State (18) had taken in games against the Bulldogs.
They had to try something, and Terry pulled out the zone.
“We just wanted to make sure they took contested shots,” said guard Deshon Taylor, who led the Bulldogs with 22 points and also had five rebounds and three assists.
In the second half, San Diego State made only four layups or dunks. It went from 1.176 points per possession to .971. It was left with jump shots, 18 in the second half including seven from the 3-point line, and the Aztecs are last in the conference there.
“That switchup defense was big for us,” Bowles said.
The block by Grimes at the end might have been the biggest play that he made in the game, but it hardly stood alone. He was perfect shooting (7 of 7 from the field and 1 of 1 at the foul line) and the Bulldogs scored off of every one of his four offensive rebounds.
In the first half, his first offensive rebound led to an open 3-pointer by Jahmel Taylor, then he scored himself on a follow. In the second half, Grimes followed a miss and scored, then tipped in a miss.
The Bulldogs had 12 second-chance points in the game. Fresno State also scored off of four of Grimes’ six rebounds at the defensive end.
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.