The Bulldogs went down early on the road at Wyoming Thursday and could not pull off the comeback for one of the few times all season, losing 64-55.
The Fresno State women’s basketball team simply had a poor shooting night, hitting only 34 percent from the floor while Wyoming did just enough to keep the ‘Dogs at bay.
However, it should not be too much of a setback for the Bulldogs. They finish the season 23-6 overall and 16-2 in the Mountain West, good enough for a three-game lead for first place.
Head coach Jaime White and the Bulldogs are ready to back up their No. 1 seed and win the tournament, earning the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in the process.
Fresno State is heading straight to Las Vegas on Friday instead of returning home, giving the team a few extra days together to prepare.
“I’d love to be able to come home from Wyoming and then go to Las Vegas, just to not spend all that time in Las Vegas, but the great part is they have no other responsibilities, so we’ll do some fun things together,” White said on Tuesday. “We’ll be able to be off our feet though and get lots of sleep and watch more film and be ready mentally, I think, in that way.
“Sometimes it’s nice to get away from all the buzz, and that’s what we hope this will do. And we’ll get some time to just be with each other and enjoy our championship and just have it be a payoff of all the hard work that we’ve done already.”
Even with the two conference losses, the Bulldogs have beaten every team at least once, giving them the game plan on how to put together a repeat performance against each opponent.
“You don’t want any doubts moving forward,” White said. “I don’t care how many times you’ve beaten somebody, when you go into the tournament, it’s a neutral court. It’s totally different, and it’s all fresh, ready, zero-to-zero, let’s start again. So I want to have as [many] positive, good feelings knowing we can do it.
“We feel like we’re in that situation because we’ve beaten every team at least once, and that was really important.”
Even though White’s Bulldogs haven’t been crowned tournament champions in her tenure – which started in 2014 – they have put together good runs in the past and have come very close to winning it all.
In the five tournaments with White at the helm, Fresno State has made it to the semifinals four times and the championship game twice. In 2017, as the No. 7 seed, the Bulldogs won three games to make it to the championship game, but lost to Boise State.
Junior starters Maddi Utti and Aly Gamez were on the 2017 team that won three in a row, so they have that experience to lean on and push through the tough challenge of winning three days in a row.
“It can definitely be a little tiring on the body, but you just have to push through,” Utti said. “You know you only have those three days, and then you can have a break. So you’ve just got to push your body to its limits for those three days.”
To prepare for the challenge of playing three consecutive days and how that is a different, unique challenge than the regular season presents, White talked about a back-to-back matchup at the end of November in Los Angeles. The Bulldogs lost to Yale on Nov. 29 but came back and beat Georgetown the next day.
That two-day stretch is something Fresno State does every year, White said, and is a key experience for the Bulldogs to call back to.
“That was really important for us because we got to feel that,” White said. “You don’t have as much preparation. You’ve got to make sure you get rest, but you do have to get ready for the game. So our kids felt what that feels like. That was as close to that as we could get right now.”
But before they even start thinking about what lies ahead, the challenge of winning three days in a row, all the focus is on the first game.
“I think it’s really exciting. It’s a lot of fun,” Utti said. “The energy’s great, and there’s a lot of pressure at the same time because you’re one and done, but it’s just really exciting. You try to go out there and play your best for that first game, because you don’t know if you’re going to make it to a second. So it’s all about that first game.”
The tournament starts with the first round on Sunday. As the No. 1 seed, the Bulldogs have a first round bye. They get to sit back and relax until Monday at noon, against the winner of No. 8 Nevada and No. 9 New Mexico.
If they win that, the ‘Dogs will advance to the semifinals against the winner of San Jose State and UNLV.
A semifinal win would setup a likely matchup against Boise State, the conference’s No. 2 team and the reigning tournament champions three years in a row. Fresno State previously beat Boise State in a wild fourth quarter comeback on the road in January.