Fresno State came out a winner Saturday at Save Mart Center.
Everywhere except on the scoreboard.
For the record, Fresno State fell 70-65 to Wyoming in triple overtime before an announced crowd of 8,118. It was a taut, tense affair packed with heart-pounding drama. In 55 minutes of basketball, there were 15 lead changes and 11 ties. Neither side led by more than six points.
After pulling even with late buckets and free throws at the end of regulation and the first two overtimes, the Bulldogs were finally done in by a Charles Hankerson 3-pointer with 14 seconds left in the third extra session. Hankerson may have the funkiest shooting stroke this side of Jamaal Wilkes, but he’s 44% from beyond the arc. All credit to him.
So while Fresno State may wake up Sunday morning tired, sore and no longer tied for first place in the Mountain West Conference, things are still looking up. There’s no reason to sulk.
For one afternoon, Bulldogs basketball mattered. It felt like a happening. It felt like an event. Sure, the university had to pull out all the promotional stops to get fans in the building, but those people came and were entertained.
You’d like to think most will be back.
Yes, it’s kind of sad Fresno State has to give away iPads to get people to attend a basketball game. (Next Saturday against Nevada, it’ll be $100 bills.) But it sure beats doing nothing at all — and the arena being three-fourths empty.
This is the sort of game, full of effort and intensity, that can spark fan interest regardless if the home team loses.
This is what big-time college basketball is supposed to feel like.
“We had a great crowd behind us today, and our guys fed off that,” Bulldogs coach Rodney Terry said. “For the better part of the game it kept our guys energized. We wouldn’t have been in the position we were in if not for the type of support we had today.”
Terry typically praises the crowd support during his postgame remarks, whether the fans deserve it or not.
Saturday, they deserved it.
I’m not saying everything was perfect. At times, it seemed like the crowd didn’t know when to bring the volume. It took freshman center Terrell Carter waving his thick arms from the Bulldogs bench to get people to stand up and engage their throats.
But they did. The place got plenty loud when Wyoming stud Larry Nance Jr. stepped to the free-throw line with 0.5 seconds left in the second overtime of a tie game.
As Fresno State fans rained noise onto the court, all Nance needed was one free throw to seal the victory. He missed the first, and Bulldogs fans went nuts. After he missed the second, the place went berserk.
It was the first time in many moons that the loudest cheers at SMC weren’t for free pizza.
“We were trying to communicate when (Nance) was at the line shooting, and we could barely hear each other,” Fresno State forward Paul Watson said. “Definitely the crowd gave great energy.”
While all sections of the arena were more full than usual, the biggest difference was the student turnout.
Fresno State students are allotted 2,000 “free” tickets that are funded through fees. Most games, hardly anyone shows up. Saturday, so many did (way more than 2,000) that some were diverted to upper-level seats that are normally hidden behind a curtain.
“We love having the support,” Watson said.
In truth, the Bulldogs were far from their best. They shot 35.7% from the field, their lowest rate in the past 13 games, and it was more about Fresno State missing open shots than Wyoming playing stifling defense.
Leading scorer Marvelle Harris seemed more passive than usual, especially in the first half, and finished 6 of 15 overall and 1 of 8 on 3s. Julien Lewis went 4 of 18. Cezar Guerrero went 5 of 15 in his first action this season in front of the home fans, including at least three misses that rolled around the rim and out.
Only Watson’s 19-point effort, on 8-of-14 shooting, qualified as a strong offensive game. It wasn’t enough.
“We had opportunities,” Terry said. “We had great looks. We’ll take those shots, and the guy that’s shooting them, all day long.”
Had the Bulldogs pulled this one out, they would’ve been in excellent position with regard to the conference standings.
Now things are a little more muddled. Fortunately, they get a week off to rest and practice for another home game against Nevada. After that comes a tough two-game swing through San Diego State and Colorado State.
Because road games in the Mountain West are so tough, winning at home is paramount. Fresno State failed to do that Saturday but succeeded in every other measure.
The Bulldogs may have lost a game, but surely they won back some fans that have long been missing. It’s a tradeoff they should gladly accept.