Fresno State had shot its way out of trouble before, but never as spectacularly or as definitively as it did on Saturday in a 121-81 Senior Night basketball rout of San Jose State.
The Bulldogs knocked down a school and Mountain West Conference record 23 shots from the 3-point line. Fresno State hit a ridiculous 60.5 percent of its threes, leading to the Bulldogs scoring the most points ever in an MWC game.
Can they continue to shoot at that high level? Because the tasks will be infinitely more difficult this week at the conference tournament in Las Vegas, especially if the Bulldogs defend as blithely as they did against the Spartans.
There was trouble there, if looking past that barrage of threes.
It was one of the first things coach Justin Hutson mentioned post game.
“It was fun to see that ball go in,” Hutson said. “It wasn’t fun watching that defense that we played in the first half.”
Senior forward Sam Bittner, too, seemed to end every question posed about confidence or carrying that confidence into the Mountain West Tournament with a caveat.
First: “We’ve always been confident,” he said. “Coach Hut likes to use the word ‘swag. We have to have swag on our team.’ I think we have a lot of swag on our team between our guards and our post men. Once we’re firing on all cylinders we’re a scary team to beat, but oftentimes we beat ourselves so if we can just avoid that, avoid the silly mistakes, avoid the turnovers, we’re a tough team to beat.”
Then: “I think our confidence comes with our preparation,” Bittner said. “When we’re prepared and we know what we’re going into, have the right mindset, we’re really confident and we’re a really strong team. But when we get big heads sometimes, when we second-guess our opponent, that’s when we end up tripping up on our own shoelaces. If we go out there and we’re prepared and have grit and show how Valley tough we are, then we’ll be all right.”
Fresno State has had difficulty defending physical bigs much of the year, and if the Bulldogs get by a quarterfinal matchup against the winner of a game between No. 6 Air Force and No. 11 San Jose State, they will likely see Utah State and Neemias Queta in the semifinals.
Queta, the 6-foot-11 freshman from Portugal, went for 18 points, 15 rebounds and six assists when the Aggies won at the Save Mart Center.
Fresno State hit 12 threes in that game including 8 of 15 in the second half of the 82-81 loss.
Against San Jose State, the Bulldogs had trouble with Michael Steadman, the 6-foot-10 junior who made 8 of 12 shots in scoring 21 points without much resistance.
That inflated the Spartans’ shooting numbers to an un-San Jose State-like 29 of 57, 50.9 percent.
San Jose State had hit only 39.1 percent of its shots in Mountain West play with a high of 48.4 in its lone win over New Mexico. And get this: the Spartans had hit better than 50 percent of their shots just one time in the past 44 games against conference opponents.
And this is a San Jose State team that was outscored in conference play by 20.4 points per game.
That could just be a matter of the Bulldogs playing to the level of competition, and all the fun was at the offensive end of the floor where Braxton Huggins’ teammates were going to make sure he got a good shot at the school record for threes in a game. (He got it with 10 for a career-high 34 points.) They also took the competitiveness out of the game early, and never were in any danger.
Those two factors tend to drain defensive intensity from the equation.
But those threes can be a flighty thing – the Bulldogs hit 55.0 percent against Hawaii and then just 30.8 in their next game against Pacific, 48.0 percent at Wyoming and then just 20.0 percent against New Mexico, 51.7 percent at UNLV and then just 32.1 percent against Boise State.
And Fresno State didn’t exactly bounce Steadman around and build on its victory at San Diego State when it got good minutes out of its backup bigs, which would have been a positive sign heading to Las Vegas.
▪ With a career-high 37 points against the Spartans, Deshon Taylor has 1,458 in his Fresno State career and is in ninth place on the Bulldogs’ all-time scoring list.
He’s just behind Maurice Talbot (1963-65) and Jervis Cole (1986-89), who are tied for seventh place with 1,480.
▪ Hutson on his three seniors, Taylor, Bittner and Huggins: “What I told them in there, I couldn’t have had a better group for our staff and myself in the first year because of what they’re about character-wise. The talent that they bring to the equation is obvious. We can all see that. But what you can’t see is the leadership, the hard work, wanting to be at practice every day, listening, toughness. They willed us to a lot of wins on the road and all in their own way and they led by example. We’re very appreciative and I told them me and my staff will always be very appreciative of our first year having these three seniors because they’re very special.”
▪ Fresno State has made 321 threes this season, a school record. The Bulldogs blew by the previous record of 303 set in 2006-07.
▪ Hutson has tied the school record for wins by a coach in his first season. Jerry Tarkanian had 22 in 1995-96.
▪ Huggins went through the pregame Senior Night celebration with his mother. “It was super special,” he said. “I can count on my hand how many games she has been to. For her to be here to experience that performance and for us to win like that, it’s surreal. It’s a dream come true. I’m happy to be in this position right now.”
▪ The No. 3 seed has had a rough go the past few years at the Mountain West Tournament. New Mexico last season made it to the championship as the No. 3 seed, losing to No. 5 San Diego State. In 2017, No. 3 Boise State lost its quarterfinal game to No. 6 San Diego State. In 2016, the Broncos again lost in the quarterfinals as a No. 3, taken out by No. 6 Colorado State. In 2015, Colorado State made it to the semifinals as a No. 3 before losing to No. 2 San Diego State.