The Fresno State women’s basketball team entered a tough stretch of back-to-back home games beginning Saturday in which they faced the two teams nearest to them in the Mountain West Conference.
On Saturday, it was business as usual as Fresno State (20-4, 12-0 MW) was once again victorious at home, knocking off UNLV (12-11, 8-3 MW), 72-58, to remain undefeated in conference play. The Lady Rebels had been third in the conference coming into the game.
The Bulldogs were anticipating a tough matchup due to a big height discrepancy. UNLV touts a roster that includes six players above 6-foot-2 inches.
“We knew this was going to be a tough game and I think UNLV is very physical, athletic and talented,” said Fresno State head coach Jamie White during the post game press conference.
One of those post players who the Bulldogs had to deal with was Fresno native and Edison High School graduate Rodjanae Wade, who leads the MW in rebounds and is currently ranked seventh in the nation in double-doubles with 13.
But for the Bulldogs what they lacked in size, they made up for in heart and chemistry.
Despite being the smaller team, the Bulldogs outmatched UNLV in total rebounds (42-35), second chance points (20-13) and points in the paint (34-26).
“I thought our kids did a good job. I mean to outrebound a team like that was fantastic,” White said. “I think that was our focus from the get-go. We had rebounding from just about everyone on the team, so that was nice.”
Fresno State, received another dominant effort from its top players — junior forward Maddi Utti and freshman guard Hanna Cavinder. Utti finished the game with 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting, and Cavinder finished with 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting, while adding six assists.
“We shared the ball well, 17 assists. I thought every quarter we were solid, and we never really gave up too much,” White said. “Obviously, Hannah and Maddi were big for us tonight and that was nice to see. Good team effort. Consistently, I feel that we are playing better and better as a team.”
A huge part of the Bulldogs’ assist output came from Utti, Hannah and Haley Cavinder, who had an off-night scoring wise with eight points on 3-of-15 shooting, but added five assists. The trio accounted for 14 of the Bulldogs’ 17 total assists.
In the beginning of the first quarter, the Bulldogs were having trouble dealing with the size of UNLV as 6-foot-4 inch center Haley Rydalch had six points in the opening minutes. Despite their struggles, the Bulldogs made the right adjustments by clamping down their defensive effort, leading to an air ball by UNLV, a transition 3 by senior Aly Gamez and a 10 second backcourt violation by UNLV.
Following a Fresno State timeout, the Bulldogs continued a 14-0 run, keeping the Lady Rebels scoreless for nearly 5 1/2 minutes of game action. The ‘Dogs held UNLV to 10 points in the first quarter and allowed only two points for the last 6:44 in the first.
Even with a decent run, Fresno State’s play was far from perfect. The Lady Rebels slowly climbed back as Wade began to get open looks in the paint and scored nine of her 21 points halfway through the second quarter.
The Bulldogs also dealt with a few missed shots and had 15 turnovers, which is what kept the Lady Rebels in the game.
“We knew that UNLV would try and force some turnovers. And I think that they did that,” White said. “I feel like taking care of the ball has been our staple…We like to see that go a little bit better.”
Still, with a score of 25-21 and 4:34 left in the second quarter, Fresno State once again went on a run and scored 13 points in that span compared to the Lady Rebels two. The Bulldogs closed out the first half with a 15-point lead.
Coming into the second half, both UNLV and Fresno State were trading baskets, with UNLV slowly closing the gap and getting the Rebels within 10 points. However, Fresno State continued to win the rebounding battle and following defensive rebounds added to its lead by getting beyond half court before UNLV could transition and scoring easy layups.
For UNLV, the Bulldogs were too much to handle as they have been for many of the teams in the MW. Fresno State went on another run, scoring nine points turning its seven-point lead into a 16-point lead which is where the scoring would hover for the rest of the game.
UNLV failed to get the lead back within single digits, and the Bulldogs’ lead never dipped below 12 points as they earned their 20th win of the season and their 13th win in conference play, remaining undefeated.
The Bulldogs now look toward Wednesday night (6 p.m. at the Save Mart Center [SMC]), when they face second-place San Jose State (15-8, 9-3 MW). With a win, the Bulldogs could clinch a share of the MW regular-season championship.
“It (the undefeated streak) really has not affected me at all,” White said. “I feel that every game brings a new game plan, and our kids are really buying into that. We’re just focused on what is in front of us.”
Utti has also been able to feel the momentum as the Bulldogs’ winning streak continues.
“I think that we have definitely grown to work together really well,” Utti said. “We have a lot of different parts and different people who step up every game. It has been really fun to play with this group of girls.”
Utti finished as the Bulldogs’ second leading scorer in the game, with all of her points coming in the first half. She said she wished she would have scored more in the second, but only cares about her team getting the win.
“Yeah, it would have been nice to score in the second half,” Utti said. “But the team was doing really well in the second half as well, so it is really just whatever you can do to get the W.”
Beyond clinching the MW regular-season championship, the possibility of an undefeated MW regular-season record may soon become a reality with only five conference games left in the season.
When asked about the chance of an undefeated regular season in conference play, White said, “Yeah. Let’s just keep winning. Winning is happiness.”
During halftime, Fresno State celebrated former All-American Wendy Martell by retiring her No. 34 jersey in the SMC rafters, making her the third female athlete to be so honored. Martell ranks fifth on the program’s career points list with 1,595. She is also among the top-five all-time in assists (480) and steals (224).