To open the new year, the Fresno State men’s basketball team looked like a new squad, certainly more aggressive than the unit who suffered back-to-back 22-point losses at Colorado State earlier in the week.
The Bulldogs shot an improved 49% from the field Saturday against Wyoming, yet it didn’t translate to the most important number of the game: the final score. Fresno State held multiple leads down the stretch but fell a few shots short of their first conference win, losing to the Cowboys 78-74.
“We definitely played better and shared the ball,” said Fresno State men’s basketball head coach Justin Hutson. “Our offense really killed us at Colorado State… I do like that we got better at that tonight, but we are looking for that ‘W.’ We got to finish out strong and make some plays at the end, at both ends.”
Sharing the ball worked well for Fresno State, and Hutson lauded his players for “playing offense the right way: aggressive, but smart.”
The Bulldogs were aggressive in attacking the basket from the opening tip, with 22 of the Bulldogs’ 33 first half points scored in the paint. Orlando Robinson was the most prominent member of Fresno State’s paint party, putting up 10 of his 15 points from the block before halftime.
Fresno State avoided falling behind early like they did twice against the Rams. The team’s shooting woes in Fort Collins, where they shot 40% and 34% in the two games, never materialized either.
Instead, it was the Cowboys who struggled early, shooting 35.1% from the field in the first half and going scoreless for a three minute stretch.
Fresno State, conversely, shot at a 57% clip, including a hot stretch in the first half where the Bulldogs connected on seven of eight shots.
The scoring wave pushed the Bulldogs ahead 33-31 at halftime, and they continued to challenge the Cowboys with a 9-2 run out of the break for Fresno State’s biggest lead of the game — 42-35 with 16:30 to go.
Wyoming stormed back with a string of 3-pointers to retake the lead, and the game settled into a back-and-forth pattern. Neither team led by more than four points, and the lead changed hands 14 times in a game destined to be determined in the final minute.
It came down to just that, as Fresno State held onto a 74-73 lead with 38.8 seconds remaining after an Isaiah Hill layup. Deon Stroud was called for a foul on Wyoming’s Kwane Marble, who sank both free throws to push the Cowboys ahead.
After Devin Gage misfired on a 3-point attempt, Marble was fouled again and hit two more free throws for a 77-74 Wyoming lead with 20 seconds left.
The ball came to Junior Ballard twice on Fresno State’s next possession, and both times the Cal Poly transfer could not deliver the game-tying bucket. Wyoming freshman Marcus Williams hit one final free throw to seal Wyoming’s seventh win of the season and first in Mountain West play.
“Junior’s going to take that tough, because he puts in a lot of work,” Hutson said on his team’s final shots. “We tell him he’s had those good looks, we believe in him and we know the next one is going to go down.”
“I told [Junior] he’s hit that shot a hundred times, he’s the first one in the gym and last one out,” Hill added. “I told him to pick himself up and be ready to hit the next one.”
Hill, who scored 17 points to go with three assists, was one of four Bulldogs who scored in double figures — Robinson (15), Gage (12), and team-leader Stroud (19) joined him.
Now, Fresno State (2-3, 0-3 MW) has less than 48 hours to regroup after dropping a game it had multiple chances to win.
Yet don’t ask the Bulldogs how much time it will take to get over this latest loss, because there was Ballard, 30 minutes after his crucial misses in the final seconds, putting up shots on the court.
He, just like his team, is already wanting their next shot.
That will come on Monday, Jan. 4 at 6 p.m. when they face Wyoming again, in the final game of the home series.