Fresno State didn’t quite have it all figured out against New Mexico at Save Mart Center two days into the new year.
The Bulldogs, at the time, were in that win-one, lose-one rut and were coming off a road win at UNLV to open conference play. They put forth one of their worst and most inefficient offensive games of the men’s basketball season in a 15-point loss to the Lobos.
Fresno State scored 0.805 points per possession, to that point the lowest of the season, and at this point the second lowest, ahead of only a 0.796 in a loss at San Jose State.
Against the Lobos’ zone, the ball was immobile; there was little player movement and little ball movement.
But they couldn’t be in much better shape than they are now with the rematch Saturday in Albuquerque with a chance to hit the 20-win mark and clinch a first-round bye in the Mountain West Conference Tournament with a victory.
The Bulldogs (19-9, 10-5) did not always attack the zone well in a 64-63 victory over Air Force last time out, taking a season-high-tying 30 shots from the three-point line. But when they did, they got the result they wanted, and from Feb. 13 on have an assisted-basket percentage of 64.1, the highest in the conference.
Overall in conference play, the Bulldogs rank only seventh.
And they will need to keep that run working at Wisepies Arena, aka The Pit, where they have not fared well of late, losing 76-64 last season and 72-45 in 2013.
“We really didn’t do a good job the first time around,” coach Rodney Terry said. “We passed the ball one time and shot the ball. We settled a lot in that game, and we have to try to attack on our terms. I think we’ve been doing a decent job of that over the last couple of ballgames, where we’ve shared the basketball and that ball is moving, and it shows. Anytime we can get 15 or more assists in a game, we’re pretty good.”
In the first game against the Lobos (16-12, 9-6), Fresno State had a season-low seven assists.
“And it was probably two at the half,” Terry said. “We didn’t have good ball movement at all in that ballgame, and we just settled for quick shots and didn’t work our offense.”
The Bulldogs are running more offense through senior Marvelle Harris now than they were then, but getting into a rhythm also has helped.
Fresno State had its two byes in conference play before the end of January but is on its fourth week playing a usual Wednesday-Saturday schedule.
“Our schedule was kind of jacked up a little bit during this conference race where we had the byes at pivotal times,” Terry said. “Anytime you have time off and have to come right back, it’s going to take you some time to get back going again. But I think now that we’re back playing and played X amount of games, that has helped us.”
That is, though, only part of the equation in facing New Mexico. The Lobos have lost four of their past six games, but all of those losses have come on the road. They have won their past four home games, including victories over Boise State and UNLV.
And they beat up the Bulldogs the first time around, hitting 53.2 percent of their shots and winning 77-62 despite turning the ball over 24 times. New Mexico scored 32 points in the paint and another 21 at the free-throw line.
“I think we’ve gotten into a good routine right now and a pretty decent rhythm, especially from an offensive standpoint,” Terry said.
“But we also have to do a good job defensively against these guys. They have guys that can score the basketball in (Elijah) Brown and (Tim) Williams. And we know (Cullen) Neal – he has had great games against us every time we’ve played them.”
Et cetera – The Bulldogs’ three-game winning streak is their longest since opening 5-0 and is tied with conference-leading San Diego State for the longest active streak in the Mountain West.
▪ Over the past six games, Harris is averaging 24.8 points per game, highest in the conference over that stretch. The senior guard has scored 1,865 points in his Fresno State career and is 86 shy of tying Melvin Ely atop the list.
▪ In the first half of the first matchup this season, Neal hit 6 of 11 shots and scored 20 points as New Mexico built a 44-27 lead. He finished with 26 points.
▪ With a victory, the Bulldogs will have improved their conference win total for a fourth consecutive year under Terry, who inherited a program that went 6-10 and finished seventh in the Western Athletic Conference in 2011. Since joining the Mountain West in 2013, the Bulldogs have gone 5-11, 9-9 and 10-8 in conference play. Fresno State is 10-5 in MW games this season.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
MEN’S BASKETBALL: FRESNO STATE AT NEW MEXICO
- Saturday: 7 p.m. at Wisepies Arena, aka The Pit, in Albuquerque
- Records: Bulldogs 19-9, 10-5 MW; Lobos 16-12, 9-6
- TV: ESPN2
- Radio: KFIG (AM 940)
- Series history: New Mexico leads 14-8 (8-0 in Albuquerque)
- Last meeting: New Mexico 77, Fresno State 62 on Jan. 2 at Save Mart Center