Fresno State Basketball

Fresno State-San Diego State rivalry back on. Saying a ‘game is in the bag’ can do that

Bulldogs erase 20-point deficit, beat San Diego State

The Fresno State Bulldogs, playing without injured point guard Noah Blackwell, were down by 20 points three times in the first half and still came back to beat San Diego State 66-62 Tuesday Jan. 22, 2019 at the Save Mart Center.
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The Fresno State Bulldogs, playing without injured point guard Noah Blackwell, were down by 20 points three times in the first half and still came back to beat San Diego State 66-62 Tuesday Jan. 22, 2019 at the Save Mart Center.

Fresno State and San Diego State are likely playing for the No. 3 seed in next week’s Mountain West Conference men’s basketball tournament when they meet Wednesday night in San Diego.

But there’s much more intrigue.

San Diego State led by 20 points in the first half of the January meeting at the Save Mart Center and as the teams went into a timeout an Aztecs player walking past the Bulldogs bench loudly proclaimed, ‘‘This game is in the bag.”

It wasn’t, even with San Diego State leading 31-11 and then 34-14.

Fresno State came back to win 66-62 for the Bulldogs’ seventh win in their past 11 games against the Aztecs.

It hurt more for San Diego State that Fresno State coach Justin Hutson was going against his former team (and many players he recruited) for the first time. Hutson came over this season from the Aztecs assistant’s chair and Tim Shelton, now a Bulldogs assistant, played and coached at San Diego State.

Fresno State coach Justin Hutson smiles as the Bulldogs mount a comeback against San Diego State in a 66-62 victory at the Save Mart Center on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. The Bulldogs were down by 20 points in the first half. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

So, yeah, there was a lot of jawing back and forth that night. And San Diego State players are still talking.

“It’s definitely going to be motivation,” Aztecs guard Devin Watson said in a news conference leading up to Wednesday’s rematch. “There was a lot of stuff that happened that was sidetracking. But at the end of the day we lost so when they come here on Wednesday we definitely got something for them.”

San Diego State guard Jeremy Hemsley: “We want to win. It’s not anything personal or like we hate them, we just ... I don’t want Hut coming here and beating us. Period. And I know our teammates feel the same way, even the ones that didn’t get the chance to play under him.

“At the end of the day it’s all love, but when we’re on the court there is no love. I think we all know that and I think Hut and those guys over there know that. Once the ball goes up, it’s war, and it doesn’t matter what’s going on or what relationship we had when I was 18, 19 years old. It’s my last year in college and it’s going to be my last home game. I’m ready for whatever and I’m ready for whoever, so that’s the mindset I have.”

The basics

Fresno State: 20-8 and 11-5; third in MW

  • Coach: Justin Hutson, 20-8 in first season

San Diego State: 19-10 and 11-5; third in MW

  • Coach: Brian Dutcher, 41-20 in second season

Series: San Diego State leads 62-55

Tipoff: 7 p.m., Viejas Arena, San Diego

TV/Radio: CBS Sports Network/940AM ESPN

Probable starters

Fresno State

G Deshon Taylor 17.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.7 apg

G Braxton Huggins 19.0, 4.4, 1.6

G Noah Blackwell 7.9, 2.5, 3.6

F Sam Bittner 7.0, 4.8, 2.2

F Nate Grimes 11.9, 9.6, 0.7

San Diego State

G Devin Watson 15.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.3 apg

G Jeremy Hemsley 9.1, 2.9, 2.5

F Jalen McDaniels 16.4, 8.2, 2.2

F Matt Mitchell 10.6, 4.0, 1.9

F Nathan Mensah 5.6, 5.6, 0.6

San Diego State forward Jalen McDaniels dunks against Boise State. McDaniels leads the Aztecs with averages of 16.4 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Darin Oswald

The Aztecs

San Diego State is coming off an 84-56 victory over the conference cure-all, San Jose State, shooting 48.5 percent while making 23 assists.

In the three games before playing the Spartans, San Diego State had averaged just 59.7 points while hitting 37.6 percent of its shots including 36.4 from the 3-point line.

The Aztecs played Nevada, at UNLV and at Utah State; the Wolf Pack and Aggies are second and third in the conference in scoring defense, but the Rebels are ninth.

Jalen McDaniels is leading San Diego State with 16.4 points per game and in that loss at the Save Mart Center in January scored 19 (on 8 of 12 shooting) with 10 rebounds and two assists. In four career games against Fresno State he has proven a tough cover, hitting 62.1 percent of his shots.

Hemsley and Watson have more turnovers than assists in their careers against the Bulldogs. Hemsley has 17 turnovers and 10 assists in nine career games; Watson has 12 and eight in four career games.

grimes score
Fresno State’s Nate Grimes dunks the ball after a pass down low against San Diego State in their game at the Save Mart Center on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

Grimes a thorn to Aztecs

Fresno State forward Nate Grimes is averaging 10.8 and 8.0 rebounds in four games against the Aztecs, which includes a matchup in the conference tournament last season in which he logged only seven minutes.

The other three games against the Aztecs …

▪ 15 points, 10 rebounds, 1 assist, 4 blocks in 24 minutes

▪ 15 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block in 24 minutes

▪ 13 points, 16 rebounds, 1 assist, one steal in 38 minutes

He had eight offensive rebounds in the victory in January and his ability to rebound could play large for the Bulldogs again.

In winning two in a row at Viejas, Fresno State has outrebounded the Aztecs 34-25 with 10 offensive rebounds in 2017 and 29-25 with seven offensive rebounds last season.

San Diego State was fourth in the MW in rebounding margin in 2017 and third in ’18.

San Diego State forward Aguek Arop, center left, is swarmed by fans after San Diego State defeated Nevada 65-57 last month at Viejas Arena. Gregory Bull ASSOCIATED PRESS

Tough environment

San Diego State’s Viejas Arena can be intimidating – just ask Nevada, which lost there 65-57 last month.

But Fresno State has gone into some tough road environments and won, beating Utah State at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum and New Mexico at The Pit and coming within six points of Nevada at the Lawlor Events Center.

Layup line

▪ Fresno State, which did not play on Saturday, has won its past four conference games and five of the past six when coming off a bye.

▪ The Aztecs have won 14 consecutive Mountain West home games. The last loss: Jan. 17, 2018, to Fresno State. The Bulldogs got 22 points from Deshon Taylor and the double-double from Grimes in a 77-73 victory.

Since, the Aztecs have beaten conference opponents by an average of 17.1 points per game.

bittner drive
Fresno State’s Sam Bittner, right, drives to the hoop against San Diego State’s Jalen McDaniels in their game at the Save Mart Center on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. Bittner scored a career-high 18 points in that game. CRAIG KOHLRUSS

▪ In the first game against San Diego State this season, Bulldogs forward Sam Bittner scored a career-high 18 points with career highs in shots (10) and free throws (seven).

In 103 career games Bittner has attempted as many as six shots only 18 times, seven shots 11 times, eight shots five times and nine shots just twice.

▪ San Diego State is 53-6 in its past 59 conference home games, but Fresno State has won two in a row at Viejas Arena.

Since that streak started in the 2013 season, Boise State is the only other Mountain West team that has had a winning streak on the Aztecs’ home floor, winning there in 2015 and ’16.

▪ In blowing that 20-point lead at the Save Mart Center in January, San Diego State hit only 5 of 22 shots from the 3-point line including 1 of 11 in the second half. But it could have an “X” factor in Jordan Schakel, who played only seven minutes that night.

Shackel returned from an ankle injury in a Feb. 20 victory over Nevada and in four games he has hit 12 of 20 shots from the 3-point line and averaged 10.5 points and 4.5 rebounds while playing an average of 22.8 minutes off the bench.

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada