The Fresno State Bulldogs were down by nine points inside of two minutes to play on Wednesday to Air Force, a team that was 10th of 11 in the Mountain West standings and had yet to win a conference road game, losing those first seven by very large margins – six by double-digits, all by an average of 20.9 points.
The Bulldogs had gone in with so much at stake, a chance to maintain their hold on second place in the conference men’s basketball standings behind San Diego State. And they were less than 120 seconds from blowing it, on their home floor where they were 14-2, destined it seemed for a four-way tie for second with Boise State, New Mexico and Nevada along with who knows what in the final three games of the regular season.
But they started to get stops and put the ball in the hands of senior Marvelle Harris, let everything run through him at the offensive end and, improbably given the ground to cover, emerged with a 64-63 victory over the Falcons at Save Mart Center.
Harris, who had only two points with 10:30 to go, scored 18 of the final 21 for the Bulldogs (19-9, 10-5 MW) including the last 12 – the final two at the free throw line with 4.7 seconds to go.
“I remember saying to him with about 10 minutes remaining, ‘It’s your time now. You have to be aggressive. You have to step it up with right now,’ ” coach Rodney Terry said. “And he did. He did in a big way. It was his time.”
Harris started the run with a three-pointer at the 10:22 mark, hit another three, then a jumper and another three, then completed a three-point play on a drive to the basket with 1:20 to go that got the Bulldogs within 63-60.
Cezar Guerrero came up with a steal that led to two foul shots by Harris with 40 seconds remaining. The Falcons’ Jacob Van missed a contested jumper at the other end with the shot clock running down, Cullen Russo rebounded and Harris took the ball right to the rim and got right back to the foul line.
The senior had missed two free throws with the Bulldogs down by two and with seven seconds remaining in overtime in a loss at Nevada on Feb. 13, but not this time.
The first went down. The second went down.
It was the first lead for Fresno State since the 18:52 mark … in the first half.
“After Nevada, it was a hard loss,” Harris said. “We just talked about it in the locker room. Nobody put their head down. Nobody got down on me. They just patted me on the back and said, do better next time. (Wednesday) was the same opportunity and that support helped me a lot.”
Terry afterward said his senior guard is the best player in the conference, admitting to an obvious bias. But over the past six games, following a dismal performance in a Feb. 3 loss at San Jose State in which he hit just 2 of 16 shots and finished with a season-low seven points, it is difficult to argue otherwise.
“He stepped up at a very high level,” Terry said. “To me, Marvelle is the best player in the league. I’m a little biased because I’m his coach, but he has been really poised, he worked the game. He had two points at halftime, but he had four assists.
“He was sharing the basketball, wasn’t trying to be overly aggressive. He trusts his teammates right now and again I think this team has really bought into whatever it takes right now in terms of winning.”
Tough when in tight – The victory was the Bulldogs’ fifth in as many games this season decided by three points or less – they beat Pepperdine 69-66, won at UNLV 69-66, at Air Force 56-55, beat San Diego State 58-57 and now the Falcons 64-63.
Still grounded – Bulldogs forward Torren Jones, who has not played since a Jan. 26 victory over Wyoming due to a medical issue, met with team physicians but has not yet been cleared to return to practice.
“I don’t think you rule anything out (as far as a return date),” Terry said. “I think you just keep going with where it’s at right now, day to day, and we’ll see that happens with it.”
Shoot, it’s the turnovers – Fresno State did not shoot the basketball particularly well, struggling when stuck in the half court against the Falcons’ zone defenses. The Bulldogs took a season high-tying 30 shots from the three-point line, making only nine, 30 percent.
But perhaps a more glaring number was 14 turnovers – they have had more in a conference game only once, 16 in a victory over San Jose State. Many came when the Bulldogs were in transition, pushing toward what could be an easy basket.
“The thing that killed us is that we didn’t play well in transition and we’re usually a good transition team,” Terry said. “We threw the ball around and didn’t do a great job of protecting the ball, had a lot of empty possessions.
“Against Air Force, you have to get easy baskets and score in transition, and that’s one thing we really tried to address as our game plan. We have to score early, and we didn’t make the right decisions. We’ve been better doing at that.”
Fresno State scored only two fast-break points.
NFL Night – The Bulldogs will host NFL Night on March 2 at Save Mart Center when playing Colorado State in their final home game of the season.
Among the former Bulldogs football players scheduled to appear are safety Phillip Thomas, the first unanimous All-American in school history, and receiver Davante Adams, the 2013 winner of the Paul Warfield Award as the outstanding receiver in the nation.
Also on the guest list are Kenny Wiggins, Ben Jacobs, Marcel Jensen, Tristan Okpalaugo, Isaiah Green, Travis Brown, Josh Harper and Cameron Worrell.
Gates will open at 6 p.m., with an 8 p.m. tipoff against the Rams. Prior to the game, the players will be available to sign autographs at the southwest corner of the arena and at halftime a half-court shooting contest will be held and six fans will have a chance to win season tickets to Bulldogs football games.
Et cetera – Karachi Edo had the three points that weren’t scored by Harris down the stretch, scoring on a dunk off a nice pass from Russo with 9:01 to go and hitting one of two free throws with 5:55 remaining. Edo, in his second game back after missing three games with a wrist injury, was the only other Bulldog in double-digits with 12 points in 26 minutes as well as four rebounds and two blocks.
▪ Air Force went into the game ranked 10th in the conference in rebounding margin at minus-2.2 but outrebounded the Bulldogs 31-28.
▪ The Bulldogs defense in the second half improved dramatically. Air Force hit 59.1 percent of its shots in the first half including 69.2 percent at the three-point line (9 of 13) in scoring 41 points, but in the second half hit only 37.5 and 14.3 percent and was held to 22 points. The Falcons scored only four points in the final 5:30.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
CRANKING IT UP
Fresno State senior guard Marvelle Harris has been increasing his productivity:
First 22 games
Last six games