It wasn’t their shooting from the field that acted as their saving grace, the Wolf Pack made 17-of-45.
In self-inflicting fashion, it was the 25 personal fouls on Fresno State’s end that gave Nevada opportunities to come back from small deficits and pull away in the final minute of play.
Nevada (10-7, 1-2 MWC) made 30 of its 37 shots at the foul line in its 68-61 win over the Bulldogs on Saturday night at the Save Mart Center.
Guards Deonte Burton and Malik Story, the Wolf Pack’s leading scorers (they entered the game averaging 16.5 and 15.3 points per game, respectively) made a combined 23 free throw shots.
Story scored 24 points and Burton added 22 for the Wolf Pack’s first Mountain West Conference win of the season.
“Give them a lot of credit. They made some shots,” coach Rodney Terry said.
“In the first half I don’t think they were particularly earned, but nevertheless, they got to the foul line and they made shots.”
The two teams last met as members of the Western Athletic Conference. Nevada, last season’s WAC champion, won 79-76 at the Save Mart Center in triple overtime.
It didn’t take that long this time. Though, for a while, it seemed like overtime was where the score would be settled.
With 11:49 to play, Fresno State gained its first lead in more than seven minutes after Kevin Olekaibe hit a 3 off an Aaron Anderson assist. The lead would change seven more times (in a game that saw 14 total).
Olekaibe, who finished the night with 10 points and two steals, made another 3 on the Bulldogs’ next possession.
Story countered with a 3 two possessions later in a latter part of the game that either saw the lead seemingly fluctuate between the two teams every other possession or the score remain tied for possessions on end.
Fresno State (7-10, 1-3 MWC) made 9-of-21 from behind the arc, including 5-of-11 in the first half.
But 3-point shooting was not the Bulldogs’ shortcoming against the Wolf Pack. They finished with a higher shooting percentage behind the arc than Nevada (42.9 percent to the Wolf Pack’s 36.4) and finished the night with more than double the Wolf Pack’s 3-pointers (nine to Nevada’s four).
Fresno State found a groove early on through Tyler Johnson’s three first-half 3s. Johnson, who finished the night with 16 points and four 3-pointers, was one of three Bulldogs to score in double figures.
“I like what we did on offense,” Terry said. “I don’t think the offense beat us tonight. I thought our defense tonight wasn’t where it needed to be in terms of guarding two guys that can score.”
The problem was that Nevada found other ways to score — namely from their two star guards and mainly from the foul line – and score often.
The Wolf Pack’s final seven points came off free throws in the final minute of regulation. Story made 11-of-12 of his free throw shots. Burton made 12-of-15.
“Anytime you put a good scorer on the line, it gains confidence for those guys, and it kind of got those guys going early in the game,” Terry said.
Robert Upshaw, after being inactive during Fresno State’s 49-36 win over Wyoming, scored four points and finished with a game-high five blocks in 18 minutes off the bench.
“I thought Robert was very aggressive,” Terry said. “He gave us a shot-blocker… We knew around the basket, their big guys really struggle scoring over high hands and finishing in there. He did a really good job coming in and being an intimidating force for us.”
Fresno State continues Mountain West play on Wednesday at Boise State (13-4, 1-2 MWC).