Fresno State had just taken apart San Diego State, the program it has been chasing since it first got into the Mountain West Conference, and after a 79-61 victory on Tuesday at the Save Mart Center, after a postgame news conference, coach Rodney Terry pulled out a stat sheet and he ticked off some of the names on the top half of it.
Jalen McDaniels, Matt Mitchell, Jeremy Hemsley, Devin Watson, Malik Pope – all San Diego State players who give the Aztecs length, athleticism, scorers.
“They’re an elite level team in this league,” Terry said. “There’s a lot of basketball still to be played. Those guys are talented over there. They have older players. They’ll hit their stride, and we have a lot of respect for their program, for their players and what they’ve done over the years.
“When we all get to Vegas, you’re going to have to deal with San Diego State.”
But what does that say about the Bulldogs, who swept a season series from the Aztecs for the first time since 1999 when they both were in the Western Athletic Conference and have now won four of the past five in the series?
“We’re pretty good, now. We’re not bad,” Terry said. “I like my team. I like the fact that we’re growing on offense and defense at the right time of year. We still have a ways to go in terms of continuing to put 40 minutes together.
“We just have to try to stay razor-sharp right now over this break. We just have to continue to want more.”
The Bulldogs (17-8, 7-5 in the MW) do not play again until a Valentine’s Day date at San Jose State, but they hit the break rolling. In drilling the Aztecs, the Bulldogs took control midway through the first half on a 3-pointer by Jaron Hopkins and ran away.
Fresno State, 5 of 15 to start, ended up hitting 52.5 percent of its shots.
It had seven steals and forced 16 turnovers – the Aztecs in conference play were averaging only 11.8 per game – and turned those turnovers into 21 points.
The 61 points for the Aztecs were a season-low, and they had come in averaging 79.4 points per game in MW play.
San Diego State got some easy baskets in the second half off drives, but the Bulldogs’ lead, 14 at halftime, was in double digits for all but 1:48 in the second half.
Hopkins had a big chunk of that, hitting 7 of 9 shots in the second half when scoring 17 of his team-high 20 points. The Bulldogs’ point guard also had three rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocked shots.
Forward Nate Grimes also continued to expand his game, hitting 7 of 9 shots in adding 15 points, six rebounds, one steal and one blocked shot in 24 minutes off the bench.
“I’m feeling good,” said Hopkins, who missed four games in December with two transverse process fractures in his back. “I’m just trying to stay confident out there and play to the best of my abilities. My team believes in me and I am just trying to be a leader out there. I will continue to be a coach on the court at the point guard spot and hopefully keep getting wins.”
Fresno State, which won the first matchup against San Diego State 77-73 at Viejas Arena, simply controlled the game. The Bulldogs beat the Aztecs on drives to the basket and worked out easy shots when faced with zone.
They had more points off the bench – 23-2. They had more points in the paint – 42-40.
“We knew that we were going to have to out-compete these guys and play as hard as we could play, especially on defense,” Terry said. “We had to try to play to our strengths and play with some poise.
“I thought our guys did a really good job at attacking zone and taking them out of the zone. I thought we played with a lot of poise and our guys really tried to execute the game plan.”
It was over before the clock hit zeros. With four seconds remaining, the Bulldogs took a shot clock violation rather than try to put up more points and there was a good chance they would have – Fresno State hit 12 of its last 17 shots.
“It feels good,” Hopkins said. “But we know they’re a good team and they’ll keep getting better toward the end of Mountain West play.
“We can’t walk around too high – we never get too high on our highs. We’re just going to keep plugging, get some wins here in the latter part of Mountain West play and go into the tournament with some momentum.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
FRESNO STATE AT SAN JOSE STATE
- Wednesday: 7 p.m. at Event Center, San Jose
- Webcast/radio: Mountain West Network/KFIG (AM ESPN 940)
- Records: Bulldogs 17-8, 7-5 Mountain West; Spartans 3-19, 0-11
- Of note: The Spartans have dropped 11 games in a row, last winning on Dec. 21 at Santa Clara, but have been in some games on the home floor during conference play. San Jose State has lost 59-52 to Colorado State, 82-76 in overtime to UNLV, 78-71 to Air Force, 90-86 in overtime to Wyoming and 71-68 to New Mexico. The Spartans do not have a mid-week game, playing next at Colorado State on Saturday. Ryan Welage, a 6-foot-9 forward, is leading San Jose State in scoring, averaging 18.7 points per game. The Spartans do not have another player scoring 10 points per game, and are ranked last in the Mountain West and 327th in the nation in scoring at 66.0 points per game.