No. 25 San Diego State was reeling early in Thursday’s contest when the Fresno State men’s basketball team opened with 11 unanswered points.
But after Aztecs head coach Brian Dutcher called a timeout, San Diego State proved why they’re one of the top 25 college basketball teams in the country.
The Aztecs went on a 24-2 first-half run while the Bulldogs battled inconsistent play throughout, as Fresno State fell to San Diego State, 67-53.
The Aztecs (16-4, 10-3 MW) now move a half game back of second place in the Mountain West standings, while Fresno State (9-8, 7-8 MW) remains in sixth place.
A week after sweeping 5-13 San Jose State , Dutcher told his team that they were stepping up a weight class with Fresno State.
Fresno State delivered a strong first punch with its 11-0 start fueled by two Isaiah Hill three-pointers and an Orlando Robinson triple off the pick and roll.
The Bulldogs’ hot start forced Dutcher’s timeout at the 16:11 mark in the first half.
“I’m so glad it happened in the very start of the game, I knew we had plenty of time,” Dutcher said. “They didn’t get rattled. I called a timeout to stop [Fresno State’s] momentum a little bit, Schakel hit a big shot and the defense settled in.”
The Aztecs roared back with a 19-0 run, where Fresno State went scoreless for over eight minutes. Forward Jordan Schakel sank a pair of mid-range jumpers and guard Matt Mitchell chipped in 7 points, three steals and drew a charge during the Aztecs’ run.
Christian Gray ended the Bulldogs’ drought at the 7:42 mark with a contested one-handed floater in the paint. Schakel immediately hit a 3-pointer to swing momentum back to the Aztecs.
San Diego State stretched its first half lead to double digits, 28-16, following back-to-back jumpers from Mitchell. The Aztec senior scored 11 first half points on his way to a team-high 19 points.
It was a redemptive game for Mitchell, who was benched against San Jose State last Wednesday. He has battled a strain in his right knee and a rolled left ankle this season, but when he played without a knee brace for the first time Thursday, he returned to his standing as the Aztecs’ top scorer.
“I felt like I was finally free from that little bit that was holding me back,” Mitchell said.
The Bulldogs made three of their first six shots, but followed that by shooting 4-for-26 the rest of the way in the first half. Fresno State also committed seven turnovers in that same span.
The turnover bug continued to plague Fresno State onThursday as the team committed 15 turnovers against San Diego State’s pressure defense. The Aztecs scored 13 points off those turnovers.
“We didn’t respond on the offensive end,” Fresno State head coach Justin Hutson said. “When they picked up the pressure on us on the defensive end up 11-to-nothing like good teams do, we didn’t respond and play with a purpose. We didn’t cut hard, we didn’t drive hard and more importantly, we didn’t make the extra pass.”
Much like their games against the other top teams of the Mountain West like Utah State and Boise State, the Bulldogs mixed stretches of good basketball with inefficient play.
“I was definitely surprised, I thought we got over that hump, but again you find more things out about your team today and I was excited about how we played in the second half as a whole,” Hutson said.
Guard Trey Pulliam made an off-balanced floater at the buzzer to give San Diego State a 32-20 lead at halftime.
Fresno State shot better coming out of halftime, connecting on five straight shots at one point to put them within 17 of the Aztecs.
But the Aztecs didn’t stop scoring.
Pulliam scored 10 points within the first four minutes of the second half, including a pair of open 3-pointers off the dribble. The Aztecs opened the second half on a 9-0 run to go up 21, 41-20, with 18:16 left in the second half.
“We’ve had trouble with guards all year long,” Hutson said. “There ain’t no magic potion. I think our guards need to get through screens and get up front.”
With Fresno State’s focus on guarding the perimeter against the second-best 3-point shooting team in the Mountain West, Thursday’s game was set up for Pulliam to have a big night and he did, scoring a career-high 18 points.
12 of Pulliam’s points came on floaters and layups near or inside the paint — the lanes were wide-open for the senior guard to exploit.
“[The Bulldogs] just over helped, and that’s why a guy like Trey can go downhill and score,” Dutcher said. “Sometimes, you have to play selfish and play downhill to get the win.”
The Bulldogs improved from their poor shooting performance in the first half by making 50% of their shots in the second.
But as was the case with many aspects of Thursday’s game, the Aztecs simply did it better. San Diego State made 11 of their first 15 attempts in the half and prevented the Bulldogs from getting back into the game.
The Bulldogs pushed the deficit back to single digits, 62-53, when Junior Ballard dished a no-look pass to Kyle Harding who drained the wide open 3-pointer. San Diego State added a few late buckets and ran the clock out to secure its seventh straight win.
Orlando Robinson led Fresno State with his eighth double-double of the season, scoring 17 points and picking up 13 rebounds.
Fresno State has now dropped 27 straight against AP Top 25 opponents, including an 0-8 record during Hutson’s tenure as head coach.
Fresno State will get another shot at San Diego State on Saturday, Feb. 20 at 4:30 p.m.