Fresno State got a little help from San Jose State on Saturday before even taking the floor at Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, the Spartans knocking off Boise State to clinch the No. 2 seed for the Bulldogs at next week’s Mountain West Conference Tournament.
So they took the floor not needing a win against host Utah State for seeding and knowing it, but also aware a victory would be their eighth in nine games, their 22nd this season and no doubt be a boost to the ego.
Turned out to be a big one.
In a game that saw senior Marvelle Harris score 34 points to become Fresno State’s career scoring leader, the Bulldogs came back from an 18-point deficit to take out the Aggies 86-85, snatching their sixth victory in as many games this season that have been decided by three points or fewer.
“Right now, it means a lot. But to me, the win means more,” Harris said of the record, with the go-ahead point coming from the foul line with 51.8 seconds remaining. “It’s always an honor to be recognized for things that you’ve done, but I feel like that’s something you look back on when you’re older and things like that.
“I’m not going to be happy with it, I’m not going to feel content or say that, ‘I’ve done this.’ Nah, I’m going to keep fighting, keep playing basketball, keep trying to help my teammates and just do what we have to do to win.”
At Utah State, that was a considerable amount.
Fresno State (22-9, 13-5) had gone awry defensively midway through the first half, with the Aggies hitting 13 of their last 25 shots including six three-pointers in building a lead that hit 39-21 with 3:26 to go on a three by Darius Perkins.
The Bulldogs didn’t want to look up.
“When you look at the scoreboard you start to realize, ‘Oh, man, we’re down 18, we have a long way to go,’ ” Harris said. “We just took it possession by possession. We tried to get stops. We tried to get a shot up every possession.”
The Bulldogs got back to within 11 at halftime and were fortunate to be that close. But there was no panic in the locker room.
“(Coach Rodney Terry) came in and told us what we had to do,” Harris said. “He didn’t come in yelling, trying to rip guys’ heads off. He came in and he told us what we needed to hear, ‘Hey, it doesn’t matter that Boise lost. It doesn’t matter if we’re in second place. That doesn’t mean that we’re content. This whole season we’ve been hungry, so stay hungry.’ ”
Terry admitted it was a huge hole: “Yeah, 18, almost 20 at one point, that’s a totally different monster.
“But I give my team a lot of credit,” he said. “These guys they kept battling, they kept fighting, they stayed together. They regrouped, they hit the reset button and they did a great job of coming out and working those 20 minutes as hard as they can work it.”
Fresno State kept working its way back into the game and then into a lead. Julien Lewis knocked down a three-pointer with 5:51 remaining to put Fresno State up 71-68.
From there, the advantage changed hands twice and the score also was tied four times, the last ever so briefly when Harris hit the first of two free throws with 20 seconds to go.
When the second went down, the Bulldogs had a one-point lead that they pushed to three before giving the Aggies shots at getting it back.
After Lewis hit a pair of free throws with 6 seconds remaining, they led 86-83. But the Aggies got a long pass to Jalen Moore in the right corner and Lewis fouled him shooting a three. The Aggies wing made the first two free throws, but after a Fresno State timeout, missed the third well short.
Harris got the rebound and was fouled, but with 3 seconds remaining missed both of his foul shots, leaving the Aggies one more last shot. Lewis picked off a pass to seal the win. Utah State fell to 15-14 overall and 7-11 in conference while earning the ninth seed.
To get into position to win, Harris was – no surprise – right there.
“Marvelle, I said it two weeks ago, I might be a little biased but I think he’s the best player in this league and I think he has played that way throughout the course of conference play,” Terry said.
The senior guard, who passed Melvin Ely at the top of the Bulldogs’ scoring list and how has 1,954 career points, hit 9 of 16 shots in the second half including 2 of 5 beyond three-point line in scoring 27 of his 34 points.
Lewis, Russo and Karachi Edo added 12 each for the Bulldogs, who will play seventh-seeded UNLV or No. 10 Air Force in a conference tournament quarterfinal at 6 p.m. on Thursday at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
UNLV and Air Force will play at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in the men’s opening round. The women’s tournament tips off Monday.
That’s a deep hole– The 18-point deficit is the largest the Bulldogs have faced in a game they have come back to win in four-plus seasons under Terry.
Fresno State had trailed by 17 with 1:52 remaining in the first half of a 68-65 victory at Arizona State on Dec. 21, 2011, a game Kevin Olekaibe scored 30 points, including 21 in the second half.
Second half surges– The Bulldogs at the offensive end in the second half of their past three games:
▪ Have hit 50 of 90 shots, 55.6 percent
▪ Have hit 16 of 33 shots from the three-point line, 48.5 percent
▪ Have had 115 possessions and scored on 67 of them, 58.3 percent
▪ Have scored 1.304 points per possession
▪ Have turned over the ball eight times, one at New Mexico, four times against Colorado State and three times at Utah State
Not a bad week – Terry has a number of performance bonuses in a contract that runs through 2019, including one tied to regular-season winning percentage excluding exhibitions or non-Division I games.
The bonus kicks in at 60 percent and increases at 64 percent, 68 percent, 71 percent, 75 percent and on up to 100 percent.
The Bulldogs started the final week of the regular season 18-9, not including victories over The Master's College and Pacific Union, so Terry was guaranteed to get a bonus of at least $20,000 even if they lost their two remaining games.
By beating Colorado State and winning at Utah State, the Bulldogs finished 20-9, a winning percentage of .68965517, bumping the bonus to $30,000.
Et cetera – The Bulldogs scored 55 points in the second half, the most allowed in any half this season by Utah State.
▪ Aggies coach Tim Duryea: “It’s an awful loss, just awful. We did everything that we could to lose a game. We made game plan mistakes, made turnovers, didn’t guard, made defensive mistakes, made mental mistakes, made physical mistakes, you name them. Really, really a poor loss. All on us.”
▪ Fresno State went 2-0 against UNLV, opening conference play with a 69-66 victory at the Thomas & Mack Center on Dec. 30 and winning 111-104 in double-overtime at the Save Mart Center on Feb. 6. The Bulldogs also went 2-0 against Air Force, winning 56-55 at Clune Arena on Jan. 23 and 64-63 at home on Feb. 24.
▪ In addition to the 34 points, Harris also had six rebounds, five assists and four steals. In this nine-game run by the Bulldogs, the senior guard is averaging 26.4 points with 5.6 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 3.0 steals.
Mountain West Conference tournament
MONDAY-SATURDAY AT THOMAS & MACK CENTER IN LAS VEGAS
▪ Men’s opening round: No. 8 Wyoming vs. No. 9 Utah State, 11 a.m. Wednesday; No. 7 UNLV vs. No. 10 Air Force, 1:30 p.m. Wednesday; No. 6 Colorado State vs. No. 11 San Jose State, 4 p.m. Wednesday
▪ Of note: No. 2 Fresno State will face the winner of the 7-10 game at 6 p.m. Thursday. The championship game is set for 3 p.m. Saturday
▪ Women’s opening round: No. 8 San Diego State vs. No. 9 Wyoming, 2 p.m. Monday; No. 7 Utah State vs. No. 10 Nevada, 4:30 p.m. Monday; No. 6 UNLV vs. No. 11 Air Force, 7 p.m. Monday
▪ Of note: No. 2 Fresno State will face the winner of the 7-10 game at 6 p.m. Tuesday. The championship game is set for noon Friday