Junior Ballard leads Fresno State as they sweep New Mexico in season series

Fresno State forward Orlando Robinson backs up a defender during the first half of the game against the New Mexico Lobos at the Save Mart Center on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021. (Vendila Yang/ The Collegian)

Fresno State incorporated a full-court press on defense throughout Saturday’s game, and in the final moments of the game, it paid off. 

With 20 seconds remaining and trailing 61-55, New Mexico’s Makuach Maluach attempted to shoot a 3, but Fresno State upped its defensive pressure. He didn’t have much space to shoot, and the Lobos’ last shot to stay in the game went to waste.

The Fresno State men’s basketball extended its home winning streak to five games after defeating New Mexico 65-55, completing the series sweep.

The Fresno State men’s basketball team (7-6, 5-6 MW) defeated the New Mexico Lobos (5-11, 1-11 MW) 65-55, sweeping the season series.

Late in the game, the Bulldogs struggled to preserve their 55-47 lead. The Lobos went on a 7-0 run and threatened to come back, just like they did Thursday when they were down 4 points with 44 seconds left and still forced overtime. 

With 5:06 remaining, New Mexico forward Valdir Manuel drove inside the paint and made a layup. Not too long after, point guard Jeremiah Francis III connected on a running jumper to cut Fresno State’s lead to 55-51.

Learning from what happened on Thursday, the Bulldogs avoided losing the lead a second time against the Lobos.

Junior Ballard continued his hot streak. He led the Bulldogs in points tonight, scoring 7 points in the second half, including a 3-point shot that started a 7-0 run.

“We know they like to run the clock a little bit for their offense, and on top of that we kind of wanted to tire them out and we saw that toward the end,” Ballard said. “[Fresno State head coach Justin Hutson] was talking about, ‘It’s winning time.’ We kind of learned from last game. In late game situations we have to be really smart with the ball.”

“It was winning time. That was the message.”

Ballard responded to Hutson’s message. With 3:16 left, Ballard nailed two free throws after being fouled. Then the defense stepped up by running a full-court press against the Lobos, limiting them to just 4 points with 2:36 left for the rest of the game.

Hutson said postgame that the defensive pressure from the Bulldogs lifted them to victory.

“I think it had quite a bit of an impact, wearing them down, keeping them out of rhythm,” Huston said. “ We did get a few steals and get some easy baskets on it. You have to be deep to do that. Our guys off the bench have to play well, and our starters have to play well.”

New Mexico head coach Paul Weir took notice of Fresno State’s aggressive defense.

“They were pressing a lot, so I think that took us out of rhythm as well,” Weir said. “Getting shots aggressively to the rim is something [Fresno State] did a good job of taking us out of. I think it started with the press and got into some guys getting rushed and kinda taking some quick shots.”

New Mexico started the game strong, recording 6 straight points. The Bulldog’s early game woes from Thursday continued as they turned the ball over four times in the first 10 minutes.

Fresno State continued to struggle offensively in the first half, shooting 3-for-10 from the field.  The Bulldogs didn’t score another basket inside until Deon Stroud hammered an alley-oop dunk off an assist from Isaiah Hill. 

After Stroud’s slam, which came with 9:59 left in the first half, 8 of the Bulldogs’ next 17 points of the half came in the paint. The inside scoring helped Fresno State rally to tie the game at 28 headed into halftime.

New Mexico opened the second half with back-to-back buckets from Manuel to jump ahead of the Bulldogs, 32-28 . But Fresno State responded with a big 8-0 run led by Orlando Robinson scoring in the paint.

It didn’t help New Mexico that, during the Bulldogs’ 8-0 run, it fell into a shooting slump, converting on only 2-for-11 shot attempts. As a result, the Lobos fell behind 41-36 and never led again.

Robinson’s contribution in that run accounted for over half of his points. New Mexico implemented a 2-3 zone defense, limiting Robinson who entered the series recording double digits in every single game. The Lobos held the 7-footer to just 10 points in the series. 

Someone needed to step up for the Bulldogs. And Ballard did so.

The Cal Poly transfer struggled early this season, missing all 17 of his 3-point attempts to open Mountain West play. But with the Lobos shifting their focus on Robinson this series, Ballard rose to the occasion.

In back-to-back games, Ballard led the team in points, and he scored 16 on Saturday afternoon. 

Ballard’s key to a mid-season bounceback — consistency, he said. It seemed to pay off as Ballard nailed eight 3-pointers in both Bulldog wins over the Lobos.

“Just staying consistent with the reps that I put in,” Ballard said. “That’s really it. That aspect, just putting in the reps and never getting down with the confidence. That’s really it, just sticking with it.”

Three Bulldogs ended the night scoring in double digits — Ballard, Stroud (13 points) and Anthony Holland (10 points).

The Bulldogs have found success at the Save Mart Center. This is their fifth straight victory at home, making it an overall 7-1 record. Meanwhile, Fresno State hasn’t found much success on the road, losing all five of their away games.

Fresno State gets to stay at home as they welcome Utah State  (13-5, 10-2 MW) for a two-game series starting on Feb. 4.

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