The scene remained the same Wednesday night at the Save Mart Center – a hotly contested conference game in which a few possessions (that were thrown away) could’ve made all the difference in the outcome.
This time, however, Fresno State was on the other side – the winning side – making UNLV carry the burden of playing from behind with the clock winding down to zero.
The Bulldogs (8-13, 2-6 MWC) found their composure, kept it, made timely shots at opportune times and stalled a Rebels offense known for its zip and pop in what Fresno State coach Rodney Terry said was the biggest win of the season – a 64-55 Mountain West Conference home victory.
“They won this game two days ago,” Terry said. “Their focus the last two days has probably been the best it’s been all year.”
Tied at 24 at the half, Fresno State went on a 17-2 scoring run to take control of a second half in which it never trailed. Allen Huddleston made a buzzer-beating desperation jumper to put Fresno State up 47-33 with 9:43 to play.
But it was Kevin Olekaibe’s play in the first half — he scored half the team’s points — and his steadfastness in shooting the 3-ball that kept Fresno State from losing the traction it has routinely lost against Mountain West competition in the first 20 minutes of play.
“Kevin came out aggressive,” Terry said. “We really outlined what each guy needed to do for us from an offensive standpoint, and one of those keys for him, in particular, was to come and be very aggressive. He did that from the outset.”
Olekaibe, who came off his best game of the season in a losing effort to Air Force (18 points on six 3s off the bench), topped it against the Rebels as a starter. Olekaibe scored a game-high and season-best 21 points and shot 4-of-7 from behind the 3-point arc.
Olekaibe, who’s played varying minutes off the bench the past five games, was hindered by an elbow injury at the start of the season and has struggled to reach full swing.
Wednesday night was a different story.
“Coach put me back in the starting lineup, and it just showed that he didn’t give up on me,” Olekaibe said. “I just knew what I had to do, and my teammates found me.”
The Bulldogs held UNLV (17-6, 4-4 MWC) to 35 percent field goal shooting. The Rebels also only made 4-of-21 3-pointers (19 percent). Both were season lows.
Freshman Anthony Bennett, the Rebels’ leading scorer, finished the night with 15 points and nine rebounds. Anthony Marshall scored a UNLV-leading 19, making 7-of-10 field goals (one of two Rebels who shot more than 33 percent from the field).
The Rebels were within six points of tying the game after a Bennett layup made the score 54-48 with 2:43 left in the game.
But Fresno State held its high ground, forcing nine of UNLV’s 15 turnovers in the second half – with a key steal by Tyler Johnson, who snagged the ball back from Mike Moser with 1:27 to play, extending Fresno State’s possession on offense and forcing the Rebels to start fouling to stall the clock.
Four Bulldogs finished with double digits in scoring. Besides Olekaibe, Johnson finished with 15 points, Kevin Foster added 13 and Huddleston contributed 11 for Fresno State, which begins its second half of conference play Saturday at San Diego State.
“In this league, you only have it for one night – win or lose,” Terry said. “Obviously, it’s a great feeling for us tonight. We beat a quality opponent.
“Tomorrow, our preparation turns to San Diego State.”
Freshman center Robert Upshaw did not play, and will not play in the Bulldogs’ next two contests at San Diego State and at home against New Mexico for violating an athletics department policy.