Fresno State had not trailed by 20 at any point in any game this season, but the Bulldogs were there on Tuesday against San Diego State. It didn’t take that long, and the Bulldogs had to play some dreadful basketball at the offensive end to get there.
Eight for 27 shooting. Ten turnovers.
But they never were out. They managed to shoot and defend their way out of that hole starting with a late run before halftime, and even playing without an injured Noah Blackwell and a fouled-out Deshon Taylor down the stretch Fresno State scored a 66-62 victory over the Aztecs at the Save Mart Center.
“Everybody had the same feeling,” said Braxton Huggins, who scored nine of his game-high 20 points in the final five minutes.
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“We all knew we were going to be OK. We all just had a composed feeling. We were going to come out and play our basketball in the second half. We’re going to come back. We’re going to get some stops. We knew we were going to be fine, we just had to play our game.”
The Bulldogs have had some experience with halftime deficits lately – it was their fifth win in six games and in the past three they trailed at halftime, 38-30 at Utah State, 28-22 at Boise State and 38-26 against the Aztecs.
This one came with some additional challenges – the shot clock at the Save Mart Center malfunctioned and was out for the final five minutes, the public address announcer counting down the time remaining. But they were able to deal with that – “I tell them to just listen to me,” coach Justin Hutson said. “You don’t want to have to start trying to listen to the people there and they were in front of me. That helps.”
And at 14-4 and 5-1 in the Mountain West they were able to climb into a first-place tie with No. 7 Nevada and UNLV – the Wolf Pack plays Colorado State on Wednesday.
A 7-0 run to end the first half got Fresno State back to within 12 at halftime, and at the start of the second half the Bulldogs started nailing threes.
Huggins hit the first, Sam Bittner hit the second, Taylor hit the third.
The Bulldogs steadily closed, finally taking a 52-51 lead on a heady play by freshman forward Aguir Agau that set up a basket by Nate Grimes.
With the shot clock running down and almost out, Huggins launched a 3-pointer that missed by plenty. Agau was there for the offensive rebound and immediately fired the ball off the rim to reset the clock.
“I just wanted to reset the shot clock, so I just had to get it up there,” Agau said. “I knew somebody was going to get it, so I had to get it up there and reset, maybe get a better shot, but Nate was right there to finish the play.”
It was their first lead since 2-0, five seconds into the game.
San Diego State (10-8, 2-3) tied the score at 54, 56 and 58, but the Bulldogs took the lead for good on a three by Huggins with 3:20 to go.
Eight minutes in when scoring at an ugly 0.389 points per possession, it was impossible to imagine that the Bulldogs would ever get there. With Blackwell out and Taylor fouling out with 2:04 to go, Hutson had to play different combinations, get some minutes with New Williams at the point, with Huggins handling the ball.
“We did have Aguir and Sam in together at the same time, which you haven’t seen,” he said. “Usually they alternate time, but they stepped up. All of a sudden D.T. fouls out and New has to play point guard and Braxton has to help him. Those things, we worked on it a little bit, it’s not something that we planned on, you think you’re going to have Noah and DT there and then you can pressure and everything fits in, everybody knows where they’re going, but that’s what basketball is about.
“You have to try to keep it simple, adjust, look at the personnel you have on the floor and we had enough. The guys really came through a played with confidence and fought.”