The Fresno State Bulldogs’ offense and defense were firing on all cylinders in their 96-65 victory over UC Santa Cruz on Saturday at the Save Mart Center.
The ‘Dogs made seven 3-pointers before their first miss from beyond the arc, which came nearly 15 minutes into the first half. They finished with a 50 percent 3-point percentage for the game.
Guard Deshon Taylor was extremely effective on the offensive end, sinking 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting, and a perfect 4-of-4 shooting performance in the first half. He also moved the ball and accumulated six assists.
Taylor was equally effective on the other end of the floor, pressuring the Banana Slugs’ guards with a ferocity that resulted in three steals.
“That’s our strategy going into the game, pressuring the ball. We’re trying to be the best defensive team in the [Mountain West],” Taylor said.
His night also included a memorable highlight play midway through the first half in which he dunked on the Banana Slugs’ Haakon Ulrich.
While the ‘Dogs shot effectively from deep, the momentum originated from their efforts up close. Bryson Williams immediately got the crowd off of their seats with a thunderous dunk that was responsible for the first two points of the game.
Not soon after, Taylor grabbed a rebound, started a fast break and finished it on the other end with an alley-oop pass to Jaron Hopkins. Hopkins made sure to finish the dunk with authority, and the crowd rewarded his dunk with a boisterous cheer.
Williams chipped in 15 points and six rebounds. He was second on the team in scoring behind only Taylor.
“The best teams in the country are the teams that, on any given night, you can have a different guy that leads you in scoring, and I think that this team has that type of makeup,” head coach Rodney Terry said.
The ‘Dogs’ established a 13-3 lead early on and never looked back, with the Banana Slugs’ only lead coming early in the first half when they led 3-2. Fresno State went into the locker room with a 52-25 halftime lead.
The start of the second half proved to be eerily similar to the start of the first. The ‘Dogs once again established momentum early on via four early dunks, which came off four steals.
Those steals were a testament to the effort the ‘Dogs put in on the defensive ends. The team forced a total of 23 turnovers, 12 of them being steals. Nineteen of the ‘Dogs’ points came off of turnovers.
There was a three-minute stretch late in the first half where the ‘Dogs held the Banana Slugs scoreless.
Center Terrell Carter II proved to be a defensive force in the paint. He blocked a shot, got two steals and made it difficult for any Banana Slug to finish in and around the paint.
“This month is huge for our growth in terms of our defensive intensity, and we’ve got to start setting the tone defensively every game,” Terry said. “We don’t know if we’re going to shoot the ball well every night, but we’ve got to know every night we’re coming in that we’re going to compete really hard, and we’re going to have each other’s back in terms of communicating and getting after it defensively.”
Forward Sam Bittner was a jack-of-all-trades for the team. On the offensive, Bittner was responsible for 14 points on perfect 4-of-4 shooting from 3-point rage and three assists with no turnovers. While on the defensive end, he stole the ball once and put his body in the line for a charging foul.
The charge appeared to be extra special for his teammates. In the ensuing timeout, he was showered with high-fives and a “Let’s go, Sam!” from Carter II.
When asked about his performance, Bittner expressed how much more important his defensive contributions were than his offensive efforts.
“I’m not really concerned about the way I shoot, I’m more focused on my defense and the way our team performs on the defensive end,” the junior forward said. “We pride ourselves on setting a tone defensively, so it just felt good to have a good defensive night more than it did to go perfect from the 3-point line.”
The ‘Dogs continued their rout of the Banana Slugs in the second half, extending their lead to 45 points at one point.
With Fresno State up 95-50 late in the second half, the Banana Slugs went on a 15-1 run to close out the game and cut the deficit down to 31 points.
The Bulldogs’ next test will be against California State University, Northridge. That game tips off at the Save Mart Center on Monday at 7 p.m.