Fresno State Basketball

Warszawski: Fresno State women’s basketball team keeps exceeding lowered expectations

Fresno State guard Alex Furr has her sights set on beating Colordo State on Friday in the Mountain West championship – and earning the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. “Going back to the NCAAs would be the best way to end my career,” the sixth-year senior said. “I can’t think of anything better.”
Fresno State guard Alex Furr has her sights set on beating Colordo State on Friday in the Mountain West championship – and earning the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. “Going back to the NCAAs would be the best way to end my career,” the sixth-year senior said. “I can’t think of anything better.” ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

For as long as she has been a member of the Fresno State women’s basketball team, Alex Furr has heard the drumbeat of doom.

The Bulldogs can’t possibly maintain their current level. Too much roster turnover. Too many coaching changes. Not nearly enough returning talent.

Better brace yourself for impact ladies, because the bottom is about to fall out.

“I’ve heard the same thing ever since I’ve been here: ‘They’re not going to be good. They’re not going to be good,’ ” said Furr, a sixth-year senior guard who has played for three different coaches.

“But we’re Fresno State. We have a tradition. We want to win, and we’re going to make it happen.”

The Bulldogs of 2015-16 are the latest to exceed expectations. Picked to finish a distant fourth in the Mountain West, they instead went 15-3 during conference play and now meet No. 22 Colorado State at the Thomas & Mack Center at noon Friday for the tournament championship.

Winner receives an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

The 30-1 Rams are big favorites, riding a 27-game winning streak that includes a 68-55 victory over Fresno State on March 1 in Fort Collins in the teams’ only meeting.

Just don’t tell that to the Bulldogs.

“(Colorado State) is not scary at all,” senior forward Toni Smith said. “They’re undefeated (in the MW). They’ve got a chip on their shoulder, not us.

“When we stick to our game plan, play hard and be physical with these girls, we’ll give them a good game and come out on top.”

Every year, it seems, the demise of the Bulldogs has been anticipated, predicted and greatly exaggerated.

First it was the Fab Five (aka Jaleesa Ross, Emma Andrews, Marnique Arnold, Taja Edwards and Hayley Munro), the senior class that ignited the program’s seven-year NCAA Tournament streak.

Once those five used up their eligibility, Fresno State would once again become a women’s basketball afterthought.

Right? Wrong.

Along came Ki-Ki Moore and Rosie Moult, who led the Bulldogs to two more NCAA appearances in 2012 and ’13.

But once Moore transferred unexpectedly and Moult graduated, the party was all but declared over.

Not so fast.

Led by the triumvirate of Bree Farley, Taylor Thompson and Alex Sheedy, Fresno State returned to the NCAAs for a seventh time in 2014.

Sheedy was that trio’s lone returner last season, and although the Bulldogs failed to make it eight straight they still finished 23-10.

This year Fresno State had to replace Sheedy, the MW Co-Player of the Year, and Defensive Player of the Year Raven Fox and was tabbed to finish fourth behind Colorado State, New Mexico and Boise State in the preseason poll.

Surprise, surprise. Though by this point it really shouldn’t be.

“I just know after my first year when we lost Jaleesa Ross and all them, everyone said, ‘Fresno State is going to go downhill.’ Then we won again the following year,” Furr said.

“Every year it’s felt like people don’t expect us to win, but we find a way to make it happen.”

This season, the Bulldogs made it happen a little differently.

Instead of their best player (Sheedy) being an offensive force, Bego Faz Davalos emerged as a defensive linchpin by leading the nation in blocked shots while averaging 12.7 points and 9.5 rebounds.

With Faz Davalos anchoring the middle, the Bulldogs are holding opponents to 36.6 percent shooting, lowest in program history.

Meanwhile, players who were backups on previous teams such as Smith, Furr, Shauqunna Collins, Moriah Faulk and Brittany Aikens have developed into key contributors.

Does the program’s history of winning manifest itself as motivation or a burden? Smith says it’s a little of both.

“It helps you because it motivates you, ‘We’re known for this,’ ” Smith said. “At the same time it’s always in the back of your mind that you’ve got to keep this tradition going. It’s mostly a motivation, but it can be a burden because there’s this pressure of not wanting to let the tradition down.”

The tradition remains. Only the players and coaches change.

Does success come easier to teams with a history of winning? Second-year coach Jaime White sure thinks so.

“I always believe a school with a good tradition keeps winning because that’s the expectation,” she said. “That expectation causes people to perform at a higher level.”

Colorado State, led in part by senior Keyora Wharry (Edison High/Fresno City), has been to consecutive Women’s NITs and so too can claim a winning tradition.

However, the Rams have unfinished business at the MW tournament after losing to Boise State in last year’s final after entering as the top seed.

Which sets up Friday’s championship as a team looking to atone for last season versus one looking to start a new NCAA streak.

“Going back to the NCAAs would be the best way to end my career,” Furr said. “I can’t think of anything better.”

With Furr, Smith, Collins, Faulk and Aikens all seniors, the Bulldogs have many pieces to replace for next season.

Just don’t make the mistake of assuming Fresno State will be starting over.

Up next

NO. 2 FRESNO STATE VS. NO. 1 COLORADO STATE

  • Friday: Noon at Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas
  • Records: Bulldogs 21-10, 15-3 MW; Rams 30-1, 18-0
  • Internet/radio: Mountain West Network/KFIG (AM 940)
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