Fresno State was down by six with San Diego State at the line for the second of two foul shots, 1:18 to go. Make, and it’s a three-possession game and the Bulldogs are in deeper, and they were in deep almost from the start dealing with foul trouble.
But Mike Mitchell missed that foul shot, and the Bulldogs took that scant opening and with a wild flurry at the end turned it into a 76-74 victory, a No. 3 seed next week at the Mountain West Tournament and a three-game winning streak at Viejas Arena, where the Aztecs had 14 consecutive conference wins, the seventh longest streak in the nation.
“I have a special group of guys,” coach Justin Hutson said.
The Bulldogs (21-8, 12-5 in the MW) closed in a flash, with some huge plays. Off that missed foul shot Deshon Taylor missed a jumper, but Christian Gray pulled an offensive rebound. Gray missed a follow, but Taylor came up with an offensive rebound and knocked down a three to cut the Aztecs’ lead to 72-69.
Fresno State, pressing and trapping, got a steal by Braxton Huggins, the first of three San Diego State turnovers in the final 51 seconds.
Huggins went right to the rim, and with 41 seconds to go it was a one-point game.
“They were in front of me and I was screaming no foul,” Hutson said. “We smelled a little blood, so we wanted to stay with it and I wanted to trust my guys that we could pressure without fouling and I guarantee we’ll show that to them because that’s growth for us, to be able to get up and pressure without fouling at the end of the game.”
Pressuring again, New Williams got a steal from Devin Watson and put Fresno State ahead with a loud, left-handed dunk.
“I don’t even know what to say,” said Taylor, who scored a game-high 25 points with four rebounds and five assists. “When we got that steal and New dunked it I was like, I feel like it’s over. I feel like we got them.”
They didn’t have them quite yet.
Fresno State got another steal, Watson losing the ball on the sideline.
The Aztecs got a timeout, fouled Taylor coming out of it and two foul shots gave the Bulldogs a 75-72 lead.
San Diego State had a chance to tie, made easier when Jalen McDaniels got a call firing away from three. But he could make only the first two of three foul shots, and the Bulldogs were able to escape a final Aztecs’ possession with a victory.
“It’s a 40-minute game,” Taylor said. “It’s March now. Anything can happen in March. I remember a couple of years ago watching Texas A&M versus Northern Iowa or one of them purple schools and they were down by 12 with like 50 seconds left and they came back and won the game in overtime.
“The game is never over until the final buzzer, and we just kept playing. I hit a three. We got a steal and we scored. We got another steal and we scored. It was just unbelievable.”
It was more so, with Nate Grimes getting only 13 minutes, five in the first half and eight in the second, before fouling out. Grimes was a big part of the plan going in, and had some big games the past two seasons against San Diego State including a double-double with 13 points and 16 rebounds when Fresno State came from 20 down to beat the Aztecs at the Save Mart Center back in January.
But that is where Gray and Laz Rojas came in. Gray had scored only two points over the past nine games, but scored eight points and came up with seven rebounds, five of them at the offensive end.
“His game was great, but it was also a testament to his attitude and the type of teammate that he is because he stayed ready,” Hutson said.
“We’ve been coaching them hard. Everyone is there to get better. We need everybody and it was his turn. He stayed ready and just played great for us.”