Reese’s Mountain West Tournament
March 12-15 – Las Vegas -- Thomas & Mack Center
Thursday: 7 p.m. (MT), No. 2 New Mexico vs. No. 7 Fresno State
By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com.
The intangible the Fresno State Bulldogs will take at the New Mexico Lobos at 7 p.m. (MT) Thursday in the Las Vegas Thomas & Mack Center was seen in the Bulldogs’ dramatic comeback Wednesday in a 61-59 first-round win over Air Force.
Fresno’s Tyler Johnson can put it to words: “We’re fighting to make it to the postseason. The urgency is there.”
Call the Bulldogs a junkyard Bulldog protecting the last meat bone in the yard. There is desperation to continue chewing – to find postseason life in the NCAA Tournament. The Fresno ‘Dogs can only find it by beating Lobos and continuing on to the Mountain West title. There is no at-large bid for these 'Dogs.
“If we don’t win this game, Fresno State and me are done,” said Johnson, of his thoughts on the bench as Air Force seemed headed for the win. The same thoughts apply to the Lobos with maybe even more urgency. New Mexico is better than Air Force.
Urgency is a good thing in athletic contests. Urgency can take you to a higher level. Urgency can produce defense. But what are the shorter Bulldogs going to do against New Mexico’s Twin Towers of 6-foot-9 Cameron Bairstow and 7-foot Alex Kirk?
Urgency doesn’t make you taller.
“We are playing one of the better teams not just in our league, but in the country,” said Fresno State Coach Rodney Terry. "They are a veteran ball club that knows how to win. They are one of the best teams in the country and one who knows who they are.
“We are going to have to play at a very high level to match what they bring to the table.”
The Lobos bring Bairstow and Kirk to the table and when you toss in Kendall Williams, you should be looking at three All-MW First Team players and not just two (Williams and Bairstow).
Bairstow, Kirk and Williams combined for 47 points in Fresno with Bairstow leading the way with 22 points and eight boards. Terry called Bairstow “a load” for anybody, but Bairstow's production has been steady and is no surprise.
The X factor at Fresno was Cullen Neal coming off the bench and drilling the Bulldogs for 17 points. You give New Mexico a fourth double-digit scorer and there aren’t too many teams that can beat them. The Lobos had five that day as Cleveland Thomas scored 10 points. The biggest stat edge that night was not points in the paint (UNM 20, Fresno 16), but bench points (UNM 31, Fresno 14).
One thing basketball fans can hope for Thursday in the Thomas & Mack is that maybe whistles won’t be blowing so frequently. There were 42 fouls called in Fresno and the Bulldogs shot 33 free throws and UNM shot 41. UNM shot 53.1 percent from the floor.
The Bulldogs’ loss to New Mexico was part of an ugly stretch where Fresno State lost 10 of 12 games. They ride into Thursday’s battle winning nine of 11. Coach Terry said the turnaround came with defense.
“That was the key,” said Terry. “We can score with everybody, but can we get stops at the other end? We have a major challenge (vs. UNM) in trying to do that.”
The Lobos have height and talent and play at a high level at both ends of the court. A popular strategy against the Lobos is throwing out a zone, sagging down and double teaming the posts, and hoping the Lobos don’t get hot from the outside. The San Diego State Aztecs rallied out of a 16-point hole using a 1-3-1 zone fired by – well, urgency.
“We have been playing as well as anybody down the stretch. I do think we are a dangerous team,” said Fresno’s Johnson, who scored 19 points vs. Air Force and went 3-of-4 from long range while adding 12 rebounds.
“There was never a point where we gave up,” said Bulldog Allen Huddleston.
The Bulldogs didn’t shoot well against Air Force – 33 percent. They beat Air Force at the free-throw line by five points. “What a great game for us, we just didn’t finish it,” said Air Force Coach Dave Pilipovich, who said he picked Fresno as a team who could ride upsets to the MW title. “That’s a good basketball team.”
The Bulldogs were down 56-41 with 5:46 to play. That’s a huge hole. They were down 57-51 with 2:28 to go. Not so huge. They did the things you need to finish: made shots, made stops, got boards, took care of the ball.
“We’re going to come out hard,” said Marvelle Harris looking ahead to the Lobos.
That might be a key for UNM, too – coming out hard and looking ahead to nobody but Fresno State.