It took an extra five minutes in overtime, but Fresno State won a basketball game that it was supposed to win on Wednesday, taking out Pacific 81-78, and that’s the bottom line point to a record-long seven-game home stand.
No team following the Tigers into the Save Mart Center in this stretch is over the Bulldogs’ heads, and they have a chance to win some games while coach Justin Hutson is fitting his pieces together, building at both ends of the floor.
That includes forward Sam Bittner, who can impact a game in a number of ways.
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Hutson wants him aggressively hunting shots at the offensive end – early, late and in between – and the senior did that in the victory over the Tigers when hitting 6 of 7 shots including 3 of 3 at the 3-point line in scoring a career-high 16 points.
The last of those 3s came with 3:31 to go, pushing the Bulldogs’ lead to five.
“This is new for Sam, to take a big shot in overtime or in the second half,” Hutson said. “That’s new for him. Even though he’s a senior, it’s not something that he has done before and it’s something we like that he’s doing and it’s going to be good for us.”
Those points came with the usual Bittner line – five rebounds, four assists, three steals.
But having taken just 0.9, 1.8 and 3.5 shots per game in his first three seasons at Fresno State, finding a comfort zone with a green light to fire away still is work in progress.
“I’m not used to it, as you know,” Bittner said after the Bulldogs’ victory over Northwestern at the Wooden Legacy over the Thanksgiving weekend. “I kind of had the yellow light last year and then my freshman and sophomore year it was more like a red light. But this year, Coach Hut comes in here and says, ‘Nah, nah, you can shoot the ball, you can let it go.’ Now I have to change my mindset from a reversal and passer player to more of a shooter and a driver, which has been challenging for me.
“But with the help of the coaching staff they’ve helped me transition and my teammates have all been really supportive of everything I’ve been doing.”
Bittner will get a chance to continue to develop that mindset on Saturday when Cal Poly visits the Save Mart Center at noon Saturday, the second of those seven home games in a row.
The Mustangs are 2-4 with wins over Menlo College and South Carolina Upstate, and they have allowed opponents to hit almost 10 3-point shots per game.
That is where Bittner thrived last season, hitting 39 of 81 (48.1 percent) of his 3s. But, as he expands his game at the offensive end, he also has found points mid-range and driving to the basket, almost unheard of a year ago.
“It’s just a learning experience,” he said. “I think Coach Hut helped me, telling me to focus on defense. If you’re feeling confident on the floor, you can feel confident on the offensive end so use your defense to transition to your offense.”
Still, he is averaging just 5.2 shots per game. The 16 points against Pacific came on just seven shots, and Hutson sees the value in having another offensive option (especially one who’s 6 feet 6 inches tall) on the floor with guards Deshon Taylor, .Braxton Huggins, New Williams or Noah Blackwell.
“Happy for him and happy for us, because we need him to do that,” Hutson said. “We’re asking him to do more. We need him to score the ball. We need him to drive it. We need him to make good passes. We need him to defend better players.
“Rather quickly, into the sixth game, he’s starting to play his role, which is more aggressive. We need him to be more aggressive.”