Fresno State did just about everything in a rematch with Air Force that it didn’t when losing to the Falcons during the regular season, breezing into the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference basketball tournament with a 76-50 victory on Thursday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Bulldogs opened a lead through a nine-minute stretch in the first half, their defensive pressure up the floor fueling a 21-1 run in which Air Force missed 12 shots in a row and committed four turnovers.
That’s a tactic that could play well when No. 3-seeded Fresno State takes on No. 2 Utah State in the second semifinal on Friday at 8:30 p.m. No. 1 Nevada and No. 4 San Diego State play in the first semifinal.
Both games are on the CBS Sports Network. The championship game is Saturday at 3 p.m., also on CBS Sports Network.
“I thought our defensive intensity was at another level,” coach Justin Hutson said. “We picked up and we wanted to pressure them a little bit, but hats off to them. They came into the Save Mart Center and kicked our butts and I think we had our guy’s attention.
“They’re a great staff over there. What they run is very hard to guard, but I was very proud of our guys with paying attention to what we were doing on the defensive end.”
Deshon Taylor finished with 18 points and a career-high 10 assists against just one turnover to lead the way. And with Bulldogs season scoring leader Braxton Huggins struggling at the offensive end (0 of 11 and 0 of 8 from the 3-point line in scoring just one point) others stepped up.
Freshman Aguir Agau, who went in averaging just 2.7 points per game, hit 6 of 10 shots including 4 of 6 at the 3-point line in scoring a career-high 16 points. The four threes also were a career high – he was just 6 of 24 there this season, and had not made a three since Feb. 5 when the Bulldogs lost to Utah State at the Save Mart Center.
“Me and coach (Tim) Shelton, we get in the gym every single day and we work on pace and rhythm,” Agau said. “That’s what I focused on when I was shooting..”
Nate Grimes, who went scoreless in that loss to Air Force, had 13 points and six rebounds.
New Williams continued to shoot his way out of a mini-slump, hitting 4 of 6 shots from the 3-point line in scoring 12 points and also eight rebounds.
Noah Blackwell, who was 1 of 7 in that loss to the Air Force and 4 of 25 over a four-game stretch, filled up the stat line with nine points, six rebounds, three assists and five steals.
The defense opened up a lot of that offense, the Bulldogs scoring 15 points off 18 Air Force turnovers.
When the Falcons beat Fresno State 64-61 at the Save Mart Center, the Bulldogs had only six points off turnovers and were nowhere near the 45.9 percent and 42.1 percent from three that they were in Thursday’s quarterfinal matchup.
Fresno State in that loss hit just 35.1 percent of its shots, 38.7 from three.
“Better defense and I’d say better ball movement,” Taylor said. “We had 23 assists, nine turnovers. Last time at our place we didn’t move the ball well and we had a lot of turnovers. That’s what helped them get the win.”
The Bulldogs (23-8) did not get out of the game on Thursday without incident, though.
Christian Gray, who came off the bench and played a big role in a road win at San Diego State toward the end of the regular season and was off to a solid start against Air Force, tweaked his left knee during a play under the basket with 4:15 remaining in the first half.
Gray came out of the game a short time later and did not return.
Utah State matchup
With the Bulldogs headed into a semifinal against Utah State and 6-foot-11 freshman Neemias Queta, Gray if healthy could be a key piece off the bench for Hutson along with redshirt sophomore Laz Rojas.
The Bulldogs and Aggies split two games during the regular season – Fresno State won 78-77 at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum and Utah State won 82-81 at the Save Mart Center. Gray played only eight minutes and one minute in those games, but his role has expanded down the stretch of the regular season, playing 13.5 minutes per game with a high of 22 in that win at San Diego State.
Hutson said he thought Gray would be able to play in the semifinal.
The Bulldogs are not deep, which limits how much and how often they pressure up the floor in some games, but Utah State had a ton of trouble with pressure up the floor in its quarterfinal victory over No. 7 New Mexico.
The Aggies won 91-83, but had 24 turnovers leading to 22 of the Lobos’ points.
Utah State had 20 turnovers in a loss to Nevada this season and 17 in losses to Arizona State and to Houston.
“I told Justin as we shook hands, if they defend like this they have an opportunity to win two more games,” Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said. “They were really good defensively. I’m not saying we were really bad offensively. They had a lot to do with it.
“Their length and their size and their quickness, they were there, and if they can guard like that, that will be good for them the next day and the next two days.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada