Jordan Campbell jeopardized Utah State’s at-large chances of entering the NCAA Tournament when he hit a 3-pointer that gave Fresno State a 48-45 lead late in the second half.
But Utah State (18-7, 15-4 MW) kept its March hopes alive with a 12-3 run to close the game. Aggies forward Alphonso Anderson beat the shot clock to deliver a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:34 left in the game. Then guard Rollie Worster hit another 3 to put the Aggies up five with 37 seconds to go.
That sequence ended Fresno State’s chance of an upset as the Bulldogs (11-11, 9-11 MW) fell 57-51 Saturday night in the season finale.
“It’s always hard to win. Winning is very difficult and it’s obviously a lot tougher on the road. I thought Fresno played a very good basketball game,” said Utah State head coach Craig Smith. “They’ve been playing a lot better and they made quite a few changes from a month ago, obviously for the better. We were able to find a way to win when not a lot went right for us tonight.”
The Bulldogs led for almost 30 minutes of game time, largely thanks to their defense. Fresno State kept Utah State to a season-low 19 first half points.
But Fresno State could not stop the Aggies from scoring in the second half. Utah State center Neemias Queta scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half to lead the Aggies’ rally.
“I thought Neemi (Neemias Queta) played really well in the second half,” said Aggies forward Justin Bean. “We kind of changed our strategy going into the second half to try and get him some better looks on offense, just clearing the paint for him, letting him do his thing and finding better spacing, and I thought he took advantage of that.”
Despite a big second half, Queta struggled in the first, scoring only two points and grabbing three rebounds. The Bulldogs’ 2-3 zone bothered him early on with two 7-footers waiting in the frontcourt, Orlando Robinson and Braxton Meah.
Fresno State head coach Justin Hutson said the Bulldogs struggled with communication in the second half, especially on defense.
“We tried pretty hard out there. Guys rotated pretty good. We didn’t do as good of a job as in the second half,” Hutson said. “It’s easy for coaches to communicate in the first half when they’re right in front of the bench, so we can do communication for [the players]. In the second half, they’ve got to communicate with one another.”
The first half was a scoring struggle for both teams early on.
Fresno State shot 1-for-7 before the first media timeout, but opened a 10-6 lead over the Aggies with 11:55 to go. Utah State, on the other hand, suffered a four-minute scoring drought and turned the ball over four times in the opening eight minutes.
By the 7:38 mark, Fresno State led 15-8 despite shooting under 30% from the field.
Junior Ballard sank a floater and drained an open 3-pointer in transition to extend the Bulldogs’ lead to 21-9, their largest of the game.
After Utah State called a timeout with 3:59 left, the Aggies hit two quick shots. Anderson made a layup and a 3-pointer to cut their deficit to five, 21-16.
Fresno State responded with a 6-0 run capped by a mid-range jumper from Kyle Harding.
Fresno State took a 27-17 lead into halftime, but the Aggies stormed back after the break.
Utah State went on an 8-0 run to push within two points of the Bulldogs, 27-25. Isaiah Hill launched a floater to stop the Aggies’ run, but Worster answered immediately with a 3-pointer to cut the Bulldogs’ lead to one, 29-28, with 15:11 to go.
Fresno State traded buckets with Utah State, but soon trailed, 40-39, after Utah State guard Steven Ashworth drained a 3-pointer for the lead.
Fresno State took the lead back as Anthony Holland made a layup off an inside pass from Hill. The lead traded hands back-and-forth until Campbell broke a tie at 45 with his first make of the game, a wide open 3-pointer.
The Aggies called a timeout and took the game over from that moment on. Queta answered with a bucket from the post, then Anderson and Worster hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Aggies a 53-48 lead with 37 seconds to go.
“You know how the saying goes, I think it was pretty applicable tonight, it’s not how you start it’s how you finish, ” Bean said. “Very cliché, but that is literally what’s going through all our minds right now, quite frankly.”
Robinson responded with a triple of his own, cutting Utah State’s lead to 53-51, but the Aggies made four free throws to put the game away.
“We fight until the end and we don’t give in, so we got a lot of room for growth, but I am proud of how we fight,” Hutson said.
For the second straight game, Fresno State gave one of the top teams in the Mountain West a battle for 40 minutes. It ended in a 67-64 victory over Boise State on Tuesday, but this time the team fell short of the same result on Saturday.
“This team is special. We’ve got some great dudes on this team, great basketball players and great talent,” Hill said. “You can see we’re trying to figure it out. We are figuring it out more than we have in the beginning, but we still got a long ways to go.”
“Going into the tournament, we think we can win it. We’ve been in games with top teams and now we’ve got to find that final push and beat top teams consistently.”
Hill led all Fresno State scorers with 16 points, and Robinson collected his ninth double-double this season (12 points and 11 rebounds).
Fresno State will be the No. 6 seed for the Mountain West men’s basketball tournament as UNLV lost to Wyoming on Saturday. The Bulldogs play No. 11 seed New Mexico (6-15, 2-15 MW) in the first round on Wednesday, March 10 at 4:00 p.m.