A series of soft starts had stunted Fresno State, five of them in a row. The Bulldogs after a fast start to Mountain West Conference men’s basketball play had fallen into a .500 funk, lose-win-win-lose, and coach Justin Hutson pointed to his seniors to lead a reset.
They made things happen Saturday in an 83-65 victory over UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center, with Braxton Huggins scoring 31 points, Deshon Taylor putting up 18 points with six rebounds and three assists and Sam Bittner scoring eight points with four rebounds, three assists and two game-changing plays in the second half when the Rebels made a run.
“We noticed it,” Huggins said. “The last couple of games we’d start off and we’d be losing. I don’t know if it’s because of energy or effort or whatever it is, but we just always get off to slow starts. The game plan was to just start off with as much energy as possible and make sure we defend the three and stop them in transition.”
Fresno State did all of the above.
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The Bulldogs had shot only 39.3 percent in the first half of its past five games, 25.4 percent from the 3-point line. They had averaged 32.3 points. But against the Rebels they had almost half that at the first media timeout – 4:58 into the game they led 15-11 – and built the lead to as many as 14 points before settling to 45-33 at halftime.
Fresno State hit eight of its first 11 shots, nine of its first 13.
“It’s not always all on us,” Hutson said. “Sometimes you have to give credit to the opposing team, but it was starting to become a habit where it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, fellas, you guys are out there starting the game, you guys have to come out and bring the energy and the focus,’ and they did. I thought they did awesome.
“We talked about it again (Friday) night after we watched film. It’s easier said than done – there are a lot of variables involved in that. But we wanted to control what we could.”
The only thing that kept that lead from growing were some bad turnovers – a lazy pass off a rebound, a walk in the post.
UNLV scored 10 first-half points off Fresno State turnovers, and the Bulldogs continued to be careless at the start of the second half when the Rebels got within five points on two occasions.
Taylor restarted the Bulldogs (17-6, 8-3 in the MW). Up five with 11:42 to play, Taylor knocked down a long three off an assist by Bittner. Taylor then hit another long three off a steal by Bittner, who took the ball from UNLV forward Nick Blair in the paint.
“We had just turned the ball over, but we knew if we came back down and got a stop and a score, got another stop and a score that would blow the lead back open and that’s what we did,” Taylor said.
Just like that the Bulldogs were up 11, and kept adding. Huggins, who hit 10 of 16 shots including 6 of 9 from the 3-point line, had 13 of his points after UNLV had cut that lead down to five.
“I was just open a lot,” he said. “My teammates did a good job of finding me. I got a lot of good looks, and I love to score.”
The Bulldogs put the Rebels in a place where they needed to shoot their way back into the game, something that had been working – UNLV had made 13 or more shots from the 3-point line in five of its past seven games. But Saturday, the Rebels were 3 of 15.
“That helped,” Hutson said. “They just made 14 threes at Boise (a UNLV win) and that’s not easy to do, Boise is a good defensive team. You go and make 14 at Boise and come home, I know you have a lot of confidence so I’m proud of our guys for following the game plan.”