If the sense of urgency wasn’t already there for San Diego State, it almost certainly appeared after Kevin Olekaibe made a 3-pointer to cut its lead to two points with 5:37 to play.
The Aztecs — co-champions of the Mountain West Conference two years running — tested to the limit by the league’s newcomers, found it just in time.
Fresno State, on the verge of pulling off an upset against the No. 16 Aztecs before 7,203 fans, its largest Save Mart Center crowd of the season, entered its inaugural season in the Mountain West with a 65-62 loss to San Diego State.
“I was really proud of the effort that we had tonight,” coach Rodney Terry said. “Our guys competed, and that’s the one thing that going into this ball game I challenged our guys to do… I thought our guys did that for a better part of the entire game.”
Kevin Foster had 18 points and seven rebounds in a game that saw the Bulldogs trailing by seven at halftime.
Fresno State (6-8) forced 11 turnovers against the Aztecs (13-2), whose only losses on the season have been to No. 4 Arizona and No. 7 Syracuse.
The Bulldogs needed every single one to remain within reasonable upset range against the Aztecs, who, behind Jamaal Franklin and DeShawn Stephens, found ways to breach past the Bulldogs’ perimeter.
Because it seemed that with every point the Bulldogs made off of turnovers, the Aztecs would respond with effortless scoring in the paint – most evident by Franklin, who threw an alley-oop to himself off the backboard for a dunk.
Franklin, who entered the game averaging 17.2 points per game, finished the night with 20 points, 18 rebounds and five assists. The Aztecs scored more than half of their points in the post. Stephens added 13 points and two steals.
Minutes after cutting down San Diego State’s lead 58-56, Olekaibe would hit another 3-pointer – this time to give the Bulldogs a 62-61 lead with 2:40 remaining.
Olekaibe scored 15 points, shooting 4-of-11 from the field and 3-of-9 from behind the arc.
The Bulldogs’ chances at an upset came down to the final seconds.
But with the Aztecs keying in on a pressured Olekaibe, the Bulldogs’ last-second attempt – an improvised one – came off a missed 3-point shot from an off-balance Marvelle Harris.
The Aztecs have won 32 straight against in-state competition.
“We’re heading in the right direction,” Terry said. “We just don’t have the results to show it. Our guys played hard. It’s disappointing that we didn’t win the game because we had a game tonight that was very winnable for us.”
Tyler Johnson, who scored a career-high 25 points against Sonoma State on Dec. 30, left the game early in the first half due to injury. Terry said he would be monitored on a day-to-day basis.
Fresno State plays at No. 24 New Mexico (14-2) on Saturday, and host 13-1 Wyoming on Jan. 16.
“This league is one of the best leagues in the country,” Terry said.
“We know, and I said this to our guys, win, lose or draw you’re only going to be able to keep this win or loss for one night. Then you have to start preparation for the next quality opponent… there are no nights off in this league.”