The Fresno State men’s basketball team mounted several comebacks Saturday night against the Utah State Aggies, but it wasn’t enough as Utah State beat the Bulldogs 71-59 at the Save Mart Center.
The Aggies were led by reigning Mountain West Player of the Year Sam Merrill and forward Justin Bean. Merill scored 24 points on 8-of-15 shooting from the field, and Bean scored 15 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
The Bulldogs were led by their seniors — guard Noah Blackwell and forward Nate Grimes. Blackwell scored 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting, and Grimes dropped 11 points and grabbed 10 rebounds -— his 10th double-double of the season.
To start the first half, the Bulldogs struggled to shoot the ball and couldn’t protect the glass. At the first timeout of the game, the ‘Dogs were shooting 30 percent from the field (3-of-10) and 20 percent from 3-point range.
One thing that set back Fresno State early was offensive rebounds. Utah State led 13-7 and had four offensive rebounds and seven points off second-chance opportunities.
After the timeout, the Bulldogs’ shooting percentage continued to decline, and the Aggies went on an 8-1 run to lead 21-8. After forward Orlando Robinson shot an air ball, Fresno State was shooting an abysmal 21.4 percent (3-of-14) from the field and 16.7 percent (1-of-6) from 3-point range.
Soon after, Fresno State began to turn things around. After Aggies forward Neemias Queta missed a jump shot, the ‘Dogs got out in transition and guard New Williams threw an alley-oop to guard Niven Hart who slammed it in and got the crowd cheering once again.
The Bulldogs were rolling at this point as guard Noah Blackwell used a screen from Grimes to trick his defender and drive in for a layup. The basket cut the lead to six as the Aggies led 26-20.
With one minute left to go in the half, Fresno State got within three points as Williams drained a 3-pointer from the left-wing. Utah State now led 26-23, and the crowd’s cheers got louder.
To close the half, the Aggies went on a 5-0 run and silenced the crowd. Queta scored in the post over Grimes, and Merrill made a fadeaway three with Williams right in front of him to end the half.
As the second half began, the ‘Dogs were trading baskets with the Aggies. Fresno State’s first three baskets of the half were all 3-pointers as Grimes made two from the top of the key and Williams made one.
Still, the Aggies stifled the Bulldogs on defense when they switched to a 2-3 zone. Fresno State began to settle for long jumpers, and the Aggies jumped out to a 43-34 lead after Merrill made two free throws.
The Bulldogs didn’t give in as they mounted another comeback attempt. Hart drained a 3-pointer, and the Bulldogs made three consecutive stops on the defensive end, forcing Queta to turn the ball over and stopping a fastbreak attempt.
As the ‘Dogs surged on defense, Blackwell drained back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the lead to one, 45-44. This was the closest the Bulldogs got as they never led on Saturday.
Still, the game wasn’t over yet. Aggies guard Diogo Brito responded as he hit a three to give Utah State a four-point lead. Both teams traded baskets in the ensuing minutes, but offensive rebounds once again proved to be the difference.
When the Bulldogs were down 52-47, Brito grabbed two offensive rebounds and scored a layup on the same play. On the sidelines, Bulldogs head coach Justin Hutson was screaming because no Bulldog players jumped for the ball.
The Bulldogs made one final surge in the game with seven minutes left in the game. Blackwell and Robinson hit back-to-back threes to cut the lead to three, 56-53.
After this sequence, the Aggies began to gain separation as the Bulldogs’ defense collapsed. Utah State went on a 14-6 run to finish the game.
After the game, Hutson said the team has got to be better at fighting for rebounds.
“I was disappointed that it (offensive rebounds) hurt us early in the game,” Hutson said. “Bean is a very good offensive rebounder, so you have to bring that focus.
Tasked with guarding Merrill in the game, Bulldogs guard Jarred Hyder talked after the game about the challenges of staying on him.
“When you’re on him you definitely have to stay focused for the whole game. He plays at a good pace and a lot of their actions are for him. Even if the ball goes away, you still have to make sure you’re locked in because most likely it’s coming back to get double screens for him,” Hyder said. We had a great game plan for him, we just needed to execute a little better on certain plays, but it definitely takes a lot of energy.”
In the end, Huston said the team let the game slip away from them and missed a few key shots late.
“We couldn’t put the ball in the basket early. We wanted to drive down and move the ball, and we had times that we did,” Hutson said. “When they went to their zone, if we could have made a couple of those open threes, then it would’ve been different.”
After the loss, Fresno State dropped to 9-17 in the season and 5-10 in the Mountain West conference. The ‘Dogs will be back home at the Save Mart Center to take on the Air Force Falcons on Wednesday.