LAS VEGAS — The clock, as it had done so in the Bulldogs’ final two Mountain West tournament games, was winding down aggressively – narrowing the breathing space, intensifying the heat of the moment.
Top-seeded San Diego State – the fast and ferocious reigning conference champion that bullied and dominated and demoralized opponents to get to the title game – wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
Not after coming back from a 22-point deficit to pull within two with 1:13 to play.
But Fresno State had found San Diego State’s kryptonite before, and held its ground when the Aztecs were at their most persistent.
The No. 2 Bulldogs made timely shots, a flurry of time-grinding free throws to stave off the Aztecs 76-70 Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center for the Mountain West championship and the conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
Fresno State (24-8) will make its sixth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
“I’m really, really happy for these girls, that their story didn’t end with an amazing shot by Ki‑Ki,” said Fresno State coach Raegan Pebley, whose team and fans stormed the court in jubilation after the game clock hit zero.
“You know, we challenged them before the first game, make these the three most memorable days of the season so far. And I think absolutely they were.”
The Bulldogs received big games from its big-time players. Ki-Ki Moore, the tournament MVP and All-Tournament selection, scored a game-high 22 points.
Rosie Moult netted 14 points and Bree Farley contributed 13. Sophomore Alex Sheedy, Fresno State’s makeshift center who’s played out of position for most of the season, ended the night with a career-high 21 points and was Fresno State’s other representative on the All-Tournament team.
“Just to come to a new conference, to win the championship after splitting the regular season with them, them being the defending champions, I think it’s excitement for our team and coaches as well,” said Moore, who made a game-winning shot the day before to push the Bulldogs into the title game.
Fresno State looked to be the victim, not the victor, in the first few minutes of play. The notoriously fast-start Aztecs (26-6) kicked off the game with a 7-0 run.
And then the tides shifted.
San Diego State’s Chelsea Hopkins, “our Superman,” Aztecs coach Beth Burns said, was subbed out with 2:46 to play in the first half after committing two fouls.
Fresno State capitalized.
The Bulldogs, who led 45-34 at halftime, went on a 12-0 run to close out the first half.
Fresno State extended that streak to a 23-0 run in the second half for a 54-23 lead with 16:09 to play. San Diego State shot 0-for-10 from the field during that span, while key 3-pointers from Moult, Farley and Sheedy catapulted the Bulldogs to a lead they would not give up for the remainder of the game.
“We picked a bad time to have a bad time,” said Burns, whose Aztecs entered the game having won 17-in-a-row after losing to Fresno State at home in both team’s Mountain West opener on Jan. 9.
“I think Fresno State had an awful lot to do with that. We’re very much a physical rep team. We work really hard to try to do things the way we want to do ’em. And we just, out of the gate, even though we had a lead, it was very much not San Diego State basketball. It was more Fresno basketball, matching baskets, up and down the floor.”
Taylor Thompson, who was leveled to the ground by an Aztecs elbow to her forehead on a screen, left the game during the second half. She returned minutes later, and finished the night with four points, a steal and a team-high seven assists.
“It’s just Taylor,” Pebley said. “I mean, I don’t know if that’s being Oklahoma, small-town, fight-for-everything-you’ve-got, blue‑collar. Her parents are here and they’ve done an amazing job raising an amazing woman, that is a woman among children and she’s 10 feet tall and bulletproof.”
And just when the Bulldogs seemed home free, San Diego State countered. The Aztecs retaliated with a 14-2 run, capped by a Chairese Culberson layup, to cut down the Bulldogs’ lead to 71-69 with 1:13 left.
“Nobody on that team planned on quitting, whether we would have got down by 20 or 30 or 40,” said Aztecs guard Courtney Clements, who, along with Hopkins, scored 15.
“Unfortunately we weren’t able to come back. But you can see that we didn’t quit. No matter what they did, we still tried to come back. We didn’t come back till the clock hit zero.”
Sheedy made three consecutive free throws with 49 seconds to play after getting fouled by Hopkins on a 3-point attempt. Moore made two more free throws with nine seconds left to put the game away.
In that final stretch, “we just played good on‑ball defense,” Moore said. “We knew who was going to take the shots, who they were going to pass the ball to. We played hard defense, one‑on‑one, switches, made them take a tough shot.”
Moore averaged a tournament-high 20.5 points per game.
“She just is a major factor. She’s a great talent,” Pebley said of her star player.
“What we wanted Ki‑Ki to know and really believe when we came in is that great players are going to be good and great in any system. You don’t have to just be good in one system.
“If you’re going to have an opportunity to go on and play beyond college, you’re going to have to know how to adapt to different systems. And she really did.”