Playing in their home opener of the season on Friday at the Save Mart Center, the Fresno State Bulldogs were aiming for a vast improvement over their previous game.
The good news is they scored more than 39 points. The bad news is they played another game marred by careless play and crucial mistakes that have given coach Rodney Terry fits in the first three outings of the season.
In another tight game, the Bulldogs were able to pull away from Pacific Friday by hitting some key shots down the stretch and outhustling the Tigers for a 66-61 victory in front of 6,341 nervous Bulldogs’ fans.
Kevin Foster was the focal point of the Bulldogs’ success, collecting his first double-double of the season by scoring 15 points and hauling in 10 rebounds. Allen Huddleston and Tyler Johnson were the other big contributors for the ‘Dogs. Huddleston finished with 13 points on 3-off-5 shooting and Johnson scored all 10 of his points in the second half.
Pacific’s Lorenzo McCloud led all scorers with 20 points on 4-of-8 shooting. He was nearly automatic from the free-throw line, going 11-of-16.
“We’re going to be in games like this all year,” said Terry, who was visibly irate over the Bulldogs’ inability to protect the basketball. “We’re going to have to grind it out. We’re grinders.”
And grind it out, the Bulldogs did. In a game that featured eight different tie scores and 13 lead changes, the ‘Dogs were somehow able to overcome 17 turnovers – five of them by Huddleston – to go on a late 8-0 run down the stretch to seal the victory.
Fresno State’s scoring also cooled off. The ’Dogs shot just 36 percent in the second period after shooting 56 percent in the first period.
Another careless turnover by Fresno State started the second half, but Johnson was able to grab the ball and hit a clutch 3-pointer to give the ‘Dogs a 37-34 lead.
Most of Fresno State’s problems came in transition, where players were slipping and sliding on the floor trying to create some fast-break opportunities. The best example of this came when the Bulldogs led 60-58. Foster plucked the ball away after a Pacific miss from the free-throw line, and the ‘Dogs were off and running. But they couldn’t score after a pass to the rim intended for Huddleston bounced out of bounds.
“Those are key possessions right there. We have to convert those,” said Terry when asked about Fresno State’s transition execution. “We’ll get better as the year goes along.”
As the second period progressed, the ‘Dogs were finally able to apply some pressure of their own on Pacific.
Fighting for loose balls and banging the boards underneath allowed Fresno State to force Pacific into some costly turnovers of its own. And at the center of Fresno State’s attack was Foster.
“He’s done a really good job,” said Terry. “He gave us a low-post presence tonight.”
As for Foster, he appears to be shaping up as one of coach Terry’s go-to players.
“I felt like the first couple of games, offensively, I was a little slow,” said Foster. “I felt like I couldn’t get my rhythm going. I felt like I found it tonight.”
It also helped Fresno State that Pacific went ice cold with its shooting. After taking a 57-56 lead with 4:37 left to play – its first lead since midway through the first period – Pacific was only able to score one field goal after that.
A Huddleston three gave Fresno State a 63-58 lead with 1:05 left to play. Pacific made one last attempt at a comeback after calling a timeout with 43.9 seconds left to play, but a scuffle for a loose ball near the basket wound up sealing the victory for the Bulldogs.
Up next for the Bulldogs (2-1) is a trip to the Central Coast where they’ll play the Mustangs of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo (1-1) tonight.