Fresno State defense rises to the occasion in series finale against Air Force

Fresno State guard Haley Cavinder (1) drives the ball to the basket in the first half of the game against Air Force on Feb. 11, 2021, at the Save Mart Center. (Kameron Thorn / The Collegian)

Fresno State women’s basketball is known for its offensive attack, leading the Mountain West conference in total points scored. But the shots stopped falling Thursday night. 

Fresno State (13-6, 11-3 MW) scored a season-low 62 points, but its gritty defense played a big role down the stretch in a win over Air Force (4-13, 2-10 MW). 

The Bulldogs forced 16 turnovers in the second half and rode a 19-point swing between the second and third quarters to come back in a 62-54 victory over the Falcons. 

“Some days, the shot is not going in,” Fresno State forward Wytalla Motta said. “But every day is defense’s day.”

Fresno State swept its series against the Falcons and has won nine of its last 10 games, including six straight at home.

“I did think it was a good challenge for us to come back being down against a very physical, rough team,” Fresno State head coach Jaime White said. “We kind of had to dig deep.”

Air Force raced to an early 13-7 lead in the first quarter. A 6-0 Falcons run, capped by a bank shot from the left wing by forward Kassady Huffman, prompted White to call a timeout.

That didn’t stop Falcons guard Kaelin Immel from firing three consecutive 3-pointers to lift Air Force to its largest lead of the game, 24-11, with 2:06 remaining in the first.

The Bulldogs got within 10 when Maddi Utti pump faked, faked a pass inside and pulled up from the free-throw line for a jumper. Air Force led 26-16 at the end of the first quarter after shooting 71% in the period.

The Bulldogs’ 2-3 zone defense stifled Air Force’s offense in the second quarter, where the Falcons’ shooting percentage dropped to 22%. Air Force struggled to penetrate the zone, only scoring 4 points in the paint. The Falcons scored 10 in the opening quarter.

Fresno State shot no better, making only 33% of its shots from the field in the first half. It was the Bulldogs’ lowest first-half shooting percentage this season. The Bulldogs’ 26 first-half points also marked a season-low for the team.

“We started completely opposite of yesterday,” White said, referencing the Bulldogs’ 76-58 win on Wednesday. “I knew it was going to be tough having the back-to-back and how would we respond after playing great.”

Air Force held onto a double-digit lead into halftime, 36-26, led by guard Briana Autrey’s 14 first-half points. But the Bulldogs’ offense woke up in time for the second half.

Fresno State went on a 10-0 run with Wytalla Motta scoring 5 of those points and drawing two offensive fouls.

“Like Kobe said, if you practice hard, you play hard,” Motta said.

The Bulldogs’ scoring run was finished by Haley Cavinder, who grabbed her own rebound and tossed up a one-handed jumper as she fell. The shot gave Fresno State its first lead since the 8:11 mark of the first quarter. 

Fresno State took a 41-39 lead with 4:46 to go in the third quarter. The team never trailed again.

With the Bulldogs leading 44-42, they took control with a 7-0 run led by the Cavinder twins . Hanna drove to the rim for a layup, Haley pulled up from inside the paint for a floater and Aly Gamez dished to Haley again for a 3-pointer to close the scoring in the third.

The Bulldogs, who trailed by 10 at halftime, led a 19-point swing in the third quarter and took a 51-42 lead headed into the fourth quarter.

Fresno State’s offensive revival was key to the comeback, but it was the press defense at half court that resulted in six Bulldog steals in the third period alone and shifted the game’s momentum.

It also helped the Bulldogs that Air Force’s leading scorer Autrey committed her third personal foul with 9:46 left in the third quarter and was immediately benched. She did not return until 24 seconds remained in the period.

“To come back, we had to press,” White said. “When [Autrey] got into foul trouble, we were able to put more pressure on and then I thought, when she came back, we were kind of rolling by then.”

Air Force cut the deficit to as close as 7 points, 56-49, when Autrey scored on the fast break. Gamez answered with a no-look pass to Hanna Cavinder in the lane, who finished with a layup.

Air Force dropped both games to Fresno State and has now lost four straight. Autrey led the Falcons with 24 points.

Haley Cavinder was the top-scoring Bulldog with 22 points, 11 of which came in the third quarter. The sophomore guard overcame shooting 2-for-8 to start the game.

“Personally, I just think you have to keep being aggressive and taking the shot you know you can make,” Haley Cavinder said.

Hanna Cavinder was the only other Bulldog to score in double figures with 17 points, and she received praise from her sister on the defensive end.

“I think it starts with energy and Hanna. I think she pressured the ball so well and allowed to get those traps and those 10-second calls,” Haley Cavinder said. 

Fresno State tied a season-high performance in steals with 13. Aly Gamez picked up four of them, a season high for the senior guard.

Fresno State travels to San Diego State (5-12, 3-8 MW) for a two-game series on Feb. 20 and 21. 

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