Fresno State Basketball

Fresno State basketball’s shortcomings all exposed in falling short of MW title game

Of all the moments for Fresno State’s soft spots, weaknesses and things that gave the Bulldogs even the slightest of troubles during the regular season to get exposed, it came when they were just one win from reaching the Mountain West Tournament championship.

No. 3 seed Fresno State trailed throughout against No. 2 Utah State and was run out of the Thomas & Mack Center in the first half, trailing by 23 points at the break before falling 85-60 in the semifinals Friday night.

The surprising blowout came against an Aggies team that the Bulldogs twice played close during the regular season — a 78-77 win at Utah State’s Dee Glen Smith Spectrum and an 82-81 loss at the Save Mart Center.

“We just didn’t show up to play,” guard Noah Blackwell said. “That’s it.”

Rather than pressure the Aggies up the floor, the Bulldogs let them loose in the halfcourt and Utah State sliced them up. The Aggies had 13 assists on their first 19 baskets, moving the ball to get barely-contested shots in hitting 19 of 36 and 8 of 18 from the 3-point line.

Utah State also had a 25-14 rebounding advantage and eight offensive rebounds, turning those second chances into 10 of its 50 first-half points.

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Utah State’s Diogo Brito (24) congratulates Brock Miller (22) after a score during the first half of the team’s NCAA college basketball game against Fresno State in the Mountain West Conference Tournament Friday, March 15, 2019, in Las Vegas. Isaac Brekken ASSOCIATED PRESS

Fresno State (23-9) had few answers at the offensive end, hitting just 11 of 31 shots in the first half (35.5 percent) and 3 of 15 from three (20 percent).

Braxton Huggins, who had been the Bulldogs’ top scorer most of the season, shot 2 of 8 in the first half.

Huggins already was coming off a tough game Thursday after shooting 0 of 11 in the Bulldogs’ quarterfinal victory over Air Force.

Deshon Taylor, second on the team in scoring during the season, shot 1 of 8 in the first half.

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Fresno State’s Aguir Agau (13) shoots as Utah State’s Neemias Queta (23) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Mountain West Conference Tournament Friday, March 15, 2019, in Las Vegas. Isaac Brekken ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Bulldogs brought some of that pressure at the start of the second half, but were unable to make much of a dent. The Aggies’ lead ballooned to as many as 35 points.

Utah State advances to play San Diego State in the final and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament at stake. San Diego State knocked off No. 1 seed Nevada 65-56 in the semifinal matchup just prior to the Fresno State game.

NIT wait

Meanwhile, Fresno State begins its wait game.

The Bulldogs will find out Sunday if they receive a National Invitation Tournament bid – they went into the game with a NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) ranking of 75 and were rated a No. 5 seed in the 32-team NIT field by

The NIT bracket will be announced at 5:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU after the unveiling of the NCAA Tournament field.

If not the NIT, athletics director Terry Tumey said the school would consider playing in the College Basketball Invitational or tournament.

If the Bulldogs get an NIT bid, they will have to go on the road.

The first three rounds are played on the home floor of the higher-seeded team and the Save Mart Center booked the Professional Bull Riders Velocity Tour in the middle of the window for second-round games.

“We would look at some opportunities for postseason,” Tumey said. “This team has performed so gallantly and they’ve done so well and these seniors have done so well, I think it would be fitting for us to try to see if there’s a possibility that we could participate in postseason and celebrate what has been a great campaign.

“We would like to do that.”

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Utah State’s Sam Merrill (5) shoots as Fresno State’s Sam Bittner defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Mountain West Conference Tournament Friday, March 15, 2019, in Las Vegas. Isaac Brekken ASSOCIATED PRESS

Unfinished business

Fresno State also would like to make up for its rough showing against Utah State.

The Bulldogs, who had not lost by more than 10 points all season, didn’t leave Las Vegas making much of an impression. And there were just too many issues to pin a thorough loss on any one thing.

Fresno State shot 40.4 percent for the game, including a season-worst 5 of 26 (19.2 percent) from the 3-point line.

In comparison, the Bulldogs drained an average of 10.7 shots behind the 3-point line and shot a Mountain West-best 38.1 percent behind the arc.

Nate Grimes led the Bulldogs with 21 points.

But Huggins finished 5 of 15 for 11 points, and Taylor was 2 of 13 in scoring six points. The Bulldogs’ top two scorers were a combined 1 of 12 from the 3-point line.

The four 3-pointers matched a season-low for a team that was ninth in the nation in making 3s, while generating 42.4 percent of its scoring from the 3-point line. The last time the Bulldogs made only four 3-pointers was last month when they shot 4 of 20 in an 82-70 win against New Mexico at the Save Mart Center.

But in the Mountain West semifinal, they went down a dozen different ways.

Utah State (27-6) simply executed at a much higher level at both ends of the floor.

“Buzzsaw in the first half,” Bulldogs coach Justin Hutson said. “You know, we didn’t play anything like we played the previous two times we played them, where we had to really move the ball. They’re a very good defensive team so you’ve got to make multiple penetrations and multiple kick-outs and go inside out.

“I think we rushed it a little bit and they made us pay. When we actually did get a stop, they got the rebound in the first half. They’re a very good rebounding team and we didn’t box out. It steamrolled from there.”

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada