Part two: Fresno State’s early season tests prepares team for tough conference

Senior forward Karachi Edo dunks in Saturday’s home game against San Diego State at the Save Mart Center on Feb. 4, 2017. (Khone Saysamongdy/The Collegian)

 III. Early Season Tests

After Fresno State won three games in Italy, it carried the momentum over into the regular season. The Bulldogs started the 2015-16 season with a 5-0 record heading into its first matchup against a ranked opponent, then-No. 15 Oregon Ducks. 

That was a great game in the sense that it was a 4-point game with under two seconds to go after Marvelle [Harris] hit a 3-pointer,” said Stephen Trembley, director of new media at Fresno State.

It wasn’t always that way. The Ducks started the game on a 11-0 run, and the Bulldogs fell behind by 14 in the first half.

But a new guest courtside possibly lifted the Bulldogs’ spirits — NBA All-Star and former Fresno State forward Paul George.

“When we came out in the second half, Paul George was sitting courtside and dapping our guys up,” former Fresno State head coach Rodney Terry said. “I don’t know if it was his presence, but our guys showed up in the second half and made it close.”

Fresno State cut Oregon’s lead to 72-68 with 1:51 remaining, but ultimately lost 78-73.

That game showed us we’re a good basketball team,” Marvelle Harris said. “We were not just a good Mountain West team. We’re a good basketball program, no matter who we were playing.”

Fresno State senior guard Marvelle Harris has earned an invite to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, where representatives of all 30 NBA teams will be in attendance. (Darlene Wendels/The Collegian)

Ten days later, the Bulldogs played at then-No. 13 Arizona. At halftime, Fresno State led 46-43.

Fresno State played Arizona tough and trailed by a single point, 71-70, with 2:52 remaining.

But a game-changing foul on Bulldogs forward Karachi Edo sparked a Wildcat run — Arizona outscored Fresno State 14-2 in the final 2:57 of the game, defeating the Bulldogs 85-72.

“It’s such a hard job to be an official, especially in a sold-out arena with 14,000 people at the McKale Center,” play-by-play commentator Paul Loeffler said. “The Bulldogs were in that game in the second half, and I remember an atrocious foul called on Karachi Edo that changed the momentum of that game.”

Two narrow losses to Top 15 teams in the country strengthened the Bulldogs’ resolve, according to assistant coach Kenton Paulino.

We were right there at the end, but I think that was part of the process,” Paulino said. “We went on the rest of the year learning how to close out games, and we won a lot of close games down the stretch.”

IV. Conference Play

Fresno State sat at a 9-4 record entering its Mountain West opener at UNLV. 

Everybody knows everybody,” Terry said. “They know secrets. They know who the best players are on the other team.”

That year’s UNLV team featured two future NBA players — Slam Dunk Contest champion Derrick Jones Jr. and three-time NBA champion Patrick McCaw.

Fresno State defeated UNLV in its conference opener, 69-66, with the go-ahead bucket scored on a tip-in from Bulldogs forward Torren Jones with 25 seconds left in the game.

The opener was a huge game in terms of everything,” said Fresno State director of basketball operations Nick Matson. We were so gritty that night. I remember three different guys diving for the same ball… it took us an hour to get off the Las Vegas Strip afterwards because of the traffic. It was a fun night.”

The next big test for Fresno State was a trip to San Diego State, the Mountain West regular season champions in four of the previous five seasons.

When we were in that league, we always looked to those guys [San Diego State] as the program we had to try and catch,” Terry said. “We had to look like that program. We had to have players that play like that at that level. In three quick years, we closed the gap on them.”

Senior point guard Cezar Guerrero left his mark on the first game with a buzzer-beating, game-tying 3-pointer to tie the game at 57 and send it into overtime.

“I knew we needed a 3, no matter what happened,” Guerrero remembered. “So when Marvelle shot it, I saw it was leaning a little short so I ran for it and I wasn’t even thinking. I just looked for the line and shot it. That was one of the craziest moments of my career.”

It was the first tie since the first three minutes of the game. San Diego State led throughout the contest and took over in overtime to defeat Fresno State, 73-67.

Two wins over Air Force and Wyoming followed the loss at San Diego. Then came what multiple players admitted was the toughest loss of the season — a 65-53 defeat at San Jose State.

The Bulldogs shot poorly — 34% for the entire game — and their leader suffered most of all. Harris went 2-for-16 from the field and 0-for-6 from 3-point range at San Jose, scoring only 7 points.

Being a leader of this team and knowing that I have to perform to help us win, I think I came in with an ego, and that game humbled me,” Harris said. “It showed us that, yeah we’re good, but we still have to work. Teams aren’t just going to lay down and give us a win.”

Fresno State senior guard Julien Lewis (0) attempts a jump shot during the Bulldogs’ 111-104 double-overtime victory over the UNLV Rebels on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016 at the Save Mart Center. (Ricky Gutierrez/The Collegian)

With a loss at San Jose State, who held the worst record in the Mountain West at that time, the 14-8 Bulldogs were likely eliminated from the at-large picture in the NCAA tournament.

If Fresno State wanted to reach March Madness, Terry told the team they needed to turn it around. That’s what former Bulldog Terrell Carter remembers from the head coach’s postgame speech.

“Rodney held us to very high standards, especially that year,” Carter said. “That game kind of woke us up.”

Fresno State responded in its next game at home against UNLV.

The response was led by Harris who felt something to prove after an embarrassing loss.

I was zoned in that game, but I think we were all locked in,” Harris said. “I felt that I let my teammates down the previous game and I had to show out. I felt like this was a must-win and we had to get back to where we were.”

Fresno State continued the momentum against San Diego State, who made a trip to Save Mart Center four days later. The Bulldogs defeated the Aztecs, 58-57, evening the score for their loss at San Diego a month earlier.

To get a double-overtime win over a talented UNLV and back that up by beating San Diego State at home and handing them their only road loss of the season,” Trembley said. “Those couple weeks were really critical for launching that last run.”

Fresno State suffered a loss in its next game at Nevada, which saw the Bulldogs without four post players, including Torren Jones, Karachi Edo and Paul Watson.

As a result, Nevada’s Cameron Oliver dominated inside and grabbed 24 rebounds. Nevada ended up winning 77-72 in overtime.

After we lost an overtime game in Nevada, we said we couldn’t lose anymore,” Edo remembered. “We wanted a good seeding for the tournament. We wanted to win out after Nevada.”

Fresno State point guard Cezar Guerrero had a team-high 22 points in the Bulldog’ 78-71 win over the University of San Francisco on Thursday, Nov.19, 2015 at the Save Mart Center. (Khone Saysamongdy/The Collegian)

And Fresno State did just that. They won their final five regular season games.

Bulldogs guard Julien Lewis worked with Matson and Paulino on improving his jump shot and in the Bulldogs’ final stretch of the season, it showed.

Down the stretch, Julien Lewis was one of the best guards in the league over the last 10 games,” Paulino said. “What he did was incredible.”

Nevada was the Bulldogs’ last loss, but they still played in close games down the stretch. In fact, Harris had to go on a 10-0 run by himself to close out Air Force, 64-63, at home.

It was in the Bulldogs’ final game of the regular season where the senior left his mark on the program forever. Down 18 late in the game, Fresno State came back to defeat Utah State, 86-85, behind 34 points from Harris.

Harris scored 27 in the second half alone, attacking the Aggies in a variety of ways. He drove inside the paint, finishing at the rim or getting to the free throw line. He also found his stroke in the mid-range game.

I remember getting hot, and I just couldn’t miss,” Harris said. “Next thing I know, coaches were congratulating me.”

Amidst his second-half performance, Harris broke the program’s all-time leading scoring record. He recognized pregame that he only needed 26 to break it, but in the heat of the game, Harris said he completely forgot about it.

“It didn’t really hit me until I got back into the hotel room. I thought, ‘Wow, this must be a real accomplishment,’ ” Harris said. “Sometimes I forget how much it means, because I cared more about us being champions.”

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