The Bulldogs knew it was coming and prepared their gameplan around it, but they had no answer for Utah State’s rebounding prowess.
Fresno State men’s basketball lost 71-59 to Utah State Saturday evening at the Save Mart Center.
The Aggies jumped out first with a three-pointer by forward Justin Bean – a shot that was there for them all night – and the Bulldogs were never able to take the lead as Utah State went wire-to-wire.
Bean was a menace on the glass all night with a game-high 11 rebounds, including 5 on the offensive end. Add in 7-footer Neemias Queta’s advantage on the glass, and the Bulldogs had trouble all night giving Utah State second chance opportunities. The Aggies scored 17 second chance points, while the Bulldogs only managed 4.
“Offensive rebounds, we’ve got to be ready to go,” said Fresno State head coach Justin Hutson. “That’s something that we’ve worked on, and you’ve seen some improvement. And Bean is one of the best ones. He’s always the culprit, and it really hurt us early in the game. I thought we got better as the game went on. ‘Oh OK. Now we’ve got to rebound.’ But I was disappointed that it hurt us early in the game because Bean is a very good offensive rebounder, so you’ve got to bring that focus.”
The numbers in the paint tell the same story: 22 points in the paint for Utah State and 12 for Fresno State.
Utah State pushed the lead to 13 deep into the first half behind the play of guard Sam Merrill, the second-leading scorer in the Mountain West and reigning conference player of the year.
“We couldn’t put the ball in the basket early, and we wanted to pressure them,” Hutson said. “And we thought they would wear down, and there were times that they did. We wanted to drive them and move the ball, and we had times that we did. When they went to their zone, if we could have made a couple of those open threes, it would have been different.”
The Bulldogs found their rhythm and prevented the Aggies from running away with it. Senior guards New Williams and Noah Blackwell scored three-straight to get the ‘Dogs within 3 near the end of the first half, but Utah State answered right back to build up an eight point lead heading into the locker room.
That theme continued into the second half. The Bulldogs rallied to pull within one – 45-44 – midway through the second half, but Utah State called a timeout, regrouped and found an answer time after time.
Fresno State was unable to keep up with the Aggies’ excellence on the offensive end as Utah State built up a lead to finish out the game.
Merrill played all 40 minutes and led with 24 points. Whether it was from beyond the arc (3-6), stepback jumpers or layups, Merrill was on point and nearly impossible to defend.
“When you’re on him you definitely have to stay focused the whole game,” said Fresno State guard Jarred Hyder. “He plays at a good pace, and a lot of their actions are for him. So even if the ball goes away, you still have to make sure you’re locked in because most likely it’s coming back to get double screens for him and whatnot. We had a great gameplan for him. We just needed to execute a little better on certain plays.”
The Aggies made over 40 percent of their three-point attempts and led the Bulldogs in field goal percentage 44.1 to 37.7, respectively.
Senior guard Noah Blackwell led the Bulldogs with 13 points, and senior forward Nate Grimes added 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Freshman guard Niven Hart was averaging 24.7 points per game over the last three outings, but he never caught fire against the Aztecs, managing 9 points in 22 minutes.
The Bulldogs fall to 9-17 overall and 5-10 in the Mountain West. They host Air Force on Wednesday at 7 p.m.