The Fresno State men’s basketball team snapped San Diego State’s 11-game conference winning streak Wednesday night at Save Mart Center, avenging an overtime loss to the Aztecs earlier in the season.
The Bulldogs boasted a 12-2 home record going into Wednesday night’s rematch against the top team in the Mountain West Conference, and the encore did not disappoint as it resulted in a tight, 58-57 ballgame.
With the Bulldogs banged up and losing another key player during the game in junior forward Paul Watson, the ‘Dogs – with inspired play and hard defense – beat the Aztecs at home for the second-straight season.
Head coach Rodney Terry was pleased with his team’s intensity and bench play.
“I thought our guys came out and they really competed for one another,” Terry said. “We started the preparation two days ago for this ballgame, and we knew we were going to be a little undermanned but we weren’t going to be undermanned in terms of our effort and in terms of coming out and really trying to work for each other. I thought our guys put together 40 minutes of that tonight.”
The game started off with a lot of missed baskets and sloppy defense, but as the teams settled down, the game became very intense. After being down 5-0 to start the game, junior forwards Cullen Russo and Watson sparked an 8-0 run with back-to-back 3-pointers, and a dunk from Watson gave the Bulldogs their first lead of the game at 10-8.
With 7:30 left in the first half, the Aztecs went on a 12-6 run of their own. But after back-to-back baskets from senior guard Marvelle Harris, the ‘Dogs tightened up on the defensive end and went on a 15-8 run to shrink the Aztecs, lead to 30-29 with 56.7 seconds left in the half.
The second half was all about defense for the Bulldogs as they made the switch to zone, which allowed them to force key turnovers.
“Coach Jerry Wainwright has done a great job with our guys all year long with zone,” Terry said. “We haven’t used it as much, but we always practice our zone slides, and our guys did a great job in executing our zone defense tonight.”
The Dogs were without junior forwards Karachi Edo and Torren Jones and later lost Watson in the second half to injury, but the reserves came in and played a big role in the win.
Harris scored three-straight baskets early in the second half, including some key steals to cut the Aztecs’ lead to 48-45. Later. Russo made a big 3-pointer from the corner to tie the game at 50 with 6:30 left in the game.
Russo embraced the challenge of playing a bigger role in the game due to the injuries.
“You’ve got to step up with two guys being out and not having as much depth as we’re used to,” Russo said. “But coach just told me I got to step up big. Getting on the boards, that was the biggest thing, and I just tried to do as much as I could.”
With 4:40 left on the clock, junior guard Julien Lewis connected from downtown to give the Bulldogs their first lead of the game since early in the first half.
SDSU senior forward Winston Shepard matched Lewis’ 3-pointer with one of his own to tie the game 53-53 with 3:09 left.
There were two minutes left in the game with the score tied at 54 apiece when Russo broke the tie with a pair of free throws. The ‘Dogs then clamped down on defense and forced a critical shot clock violation with 1:25 left. Harris then extended the lead for the Bulldogs to 58-54 with a pair of free throws with a minute to go in the game.
Harris, the game’s leading scorer, was impressed with the team’s hard play and contributions from the bench.
“Our whole emphasis on this game was: do we have enough dogs in the kennel so when a player goes down, we always have somebody ready to step up,” Harris said. “I think everybody stepped up to the challenge.”
Freshman forward Zylan Cheatham hit two free throws with 42.4 seconds left to pull San Diego State within a point. On the ensuing possession, Harris ran down the clock, missed a long 3-pointer, and the Aztecs called time out with 7.6 seconds remaining.
Freshman guard Trey Kell was off the mark on a fadeaway jumper, and San Diego State was whistled for basket interference with 0.8 seconds left as the Bulldogs celebrated the win on the court.
Harris had 20 points, five assists and four steals, and Cullen Russo earned his fourth double-double of the season with 14 points and 12 rebounds. The Bulldogs improved to 16-8 overall and 7-4 in Mountain West play, which puts them in second place in the conference.
The Bulldogs erased a 12-point first-half deficit and 11-point second-half deficit to move into a tie with New Mexico for second in the conference race and now are 3.5 games back of San Diego State for the league lead.
Due to the absence of their main interior players, the Bulldogs were outrebounded 41-29 but forced 18 turnovers.
Freshman guard Jeremy Hemsley led San Diego State with 18 points, and Kell added 16.