The Fresno State women’s basketball team clinched a share of the Mountain West (MW) regular season championship thanks to the late game heroics by forward Maddi Utti, whose late steal and game-winning shot in the final seconds gave the Bulldogs a 78-76 win over San Jose State.
The game’s final minute was a back and forth affair between Fresno State (21-4, 14-0 MW) and San Jose State (15-9, 9-4 MW) and Utti was just one of many heroes for the ‘Dogs on Wednesday.
With 1:19 left in the game, San Jose State guard Fieme’a Hafoka knocked down a go-ahead 3-pointer to give the Spartans a two-point lead, 76-74. After a turnover by Hanna Cavinder, the Bulldogs’ undefeated MW record was hanging the balance.
Down two points with only 36.9 seconds left in the game, the Bulldogs had three fouls to give and aggressively defended the inbounds passes from the Spartans. After every failed attempt the Bulldogs would use one of their fouls and on the fourth inbound with no fouls to give, Utti came up clutch for the ‘Dogs.
“We only had one foul, so we felt that we had to foul to get them on the line if we needed to,” Fresno State head coach Jaime White said. “We did not foul on the last one and Maddi got the steal.”
As Spartan point guard Ayzhiana Basallo’s inbound pass was intercepted by Utti, she dished a pass to Hanna Cavinder who passed the ball to center Wytalla Motta in transition, and Motta hit the game-tying layup with 25 seconds left.
After a key defensive stop and only 3.6 seconds left, the Bulldogs called a 30-second timeout to draw a final play to take back the lead, but first they needed to avoid the Spartans fouling them and taking time off the clock like Fresno State before.
“They (San Jose State) had three fouls and a lot of teams have fouled us to waste time,” White said. “So, we felt like we needed a play where somebody was shooting.”
After only playing less than a minute the whole game, Fresno State junior Bree Delaney was substituted into the game to alley oop the inbound pass to Utti under the basket for the go-ahead basketball to put the Bulldogs up 78-76.
“Bree Delaney comes off the bench in the biggest play of the night and throws the perfect pass and Maddi with her jumping ability made it look easy,” White said.
During the timeout before the final play assistant head coach Mandi Carver was in charge of drawing up the play.
“We go over multiple situations at the end. Mandi has done an excellent job,” White said. “She is able to write it up, explain it and the girls know exactly what they need to do. We made just a little change at the end because of the fouling situation.”
After the game, with the net that the players cut down around her neck, Utti was still reeling from the final moments of the game, being one of the many heroes for the Bulldogs. Utti grabbed her 21st double-double of her career with 16 points and 12 rebounds, placing her in sole possession of fifth in program history.
“I am still speechless. My heart is still racing. I am just so happy,” Utti said. “It was a great team win and that last play was set up perfectly. Aly set a great back screen for me and Bree’s pass couldn’t be any better than it was and it went in.”
Even though the Bulldogs were up with only 2.8 seconds left, their lead was far from safe, as the Spartans got the ball into the hands of leading scorer and rebounder forward Tyra Whitehead with the game on the line.
For much of the game, Whitehead held a dominant presence in the paint and was the go-to scorer for San Jose State as she racked up 28 points on 13-of-14 and 12 total rebounds — six on offense and six on defense.
“We really didn’t have an answer for No. 15 (Whitehead),” said White. “We had to do everything we could because they went back to Whitehead and that ball was in, but we were glad that the time was as low as it was.”
With the ball in her hands, Whitehead got off a shot in the paint that went in, but a last second pump fake caused her to miss beating the buzzer by a second. After the referees reviewed the play and confirmed that the shot was late, Fresno State celebrated its regular season MW Championship.
Despite the amount of points given up to Whitehead, Fresno State won the battle of points in the paint 44-38 and had the advantage in fast break points with 12.
“We were 8-of-11 in transition, so we knew that we could transition,” White said. “So, when we see that stat we’re like, ‘OK, let’s continue to transition and knock down some shots.”
The Bulldogs finished the game shooting 32-of-67 (47.8 percent) from the field and only 25 percent from 3-point range (7-28). Besides transition points, a majority of the ‘Dogs’ scoring output came from Haley and Hanna Cavinder as they drove inside, got multiple and-1 calls and found open teammates on the perimeter as they penetrated the defense.
Although Motta, Delaney and Utti came up clutch in the final minutes, Haley and Hanna Cavinder continued to play their key roles as usual accounting for much of Fresno State’s scoring, rebounding and assist output.
Both sisters finished the game with over 20 points. Hanna Cavinder scored 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting and Haley Cavinder finished three assists shy of a triple-double, scoring 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
The double-double gave Haley Cavinder her sixth in MW play and Hanna Cavinder’s 20 points marks the eight time she has hit that mark this season. Most importantly, the freshmen guards helped lead Fresno State to a MW championship in just their first season with the ‘Dogs.
“I am just on cloud 9. Like Maddi said, it just feels crazy just to go out and win; it is indescribable,” said Haley Cavinder. “This is everything we wanted, everything we worked for and it’s very special.”
With one more, Fresno State can secure an outright regular season championship and the first for White since she took over the program following the 2014 season.
The celebration for White and her team will be short lived as the Bulldogs leave Fresno on Friday to travel to Logan, Utah to face last-place Utah State (7-18, 2-12 MW) on Saturday. That game will be one of two away games the ‘Dogs play, as they face Air Force (5-19, 3-10 MW) next Wednesday.
“My message is going to be Utah State, we beat Boise at home in a last second shot, we have to finish out,” White said. “We want to finish out strong and be confident and ready to go into the tournament. I feel like it was important to win this game and celebrate a championship so we get used to it.”