Going in without star player Jaron Hopkins, the Bulldogs knew they’d have a tough last game before the conference tournament. I’m sure they didn’t quite expect an OT game in Albuquerque over the No.3 seed in the upcoming tourney. The winner would lock up the 3 seed, and the loser would end up with the 4 seed, and an extra play-in game for their trouble. After an incredibly valiant effort to even force bonus basketball, Fresno State would end up falling to the Lobos on Senior Night, 95-86.
With the stakes high, the attendance high, and the temperature inside the arena even higher, it was bound to be a strong fight all night long. And both teams delivered in this one. We also got a whole lot of fouls called, as the two squads combined for 45 fouls on the night. It’s partially to be expected with two teams that play as physically as these two do, but there was definitely an element of ref-ball tonight, as three players would end up fouling up, (two Bulldogs, one Lobo).
The game started out routinely enough, with both teams keeping things equal, although there was evidence of the foul trouble that would come as early as the first five minutes of the game. There was 6 combined fouls in just the first four minutes of the game, and that pace kept up pretty much the rest of the way. The early going also showed what would end up being the most important margin in the game, free throws. New Mexico ended up +4 on free throws on the night, and both teams shot above 80% in the contest. New Mexico ended up taking a 5 point lead into the half courtesy of a late run that put them up 10 with 2 minutes to go, before Fresno State clawed their way back in on late free throws.
You could be mostly forgiven for not paying the closest attention to the 1st half tonight, because the 2nd half and OT were definitely where things got crazy, and the shots began falling everywhere. The most amazing stat of the night belonged to New Mexico’s Anthony Mathis, who went 13-14 on the night, and an incredible 5-5 from outside the arc. He didn’t miss a shot in the game until deep into the second half. New Mexico as a whole had a rather remarkable night from deep, despite ending up at only 50%. What that percentage doesn’t show is that they went ice cold from outside the line in the last 8 minutes of the game, as Fresno State went into a strong half-court defense that neutralized the Lobos from outside.
After the first 10 minutes of the second half, it looked like the Lobos would lock this one up, and go to a decisive win. Deshon Taylor had gone down with an apparent cramp, and the Bulldogs had turned to a big lineup to try to slow down the Lobo offense, and they could not get anything to fall on the offensive glass. It turns out that Fresno State had other plans for the evening. After letting New Mexico get out to a 14 point lead at 54-40, the Bulldogs slowly but surely began climbing back into the game. A quick 10-0 run brought Fresno State straight back into the game, and even Deshon Taylor came back onto the floor to help out a tired lineup deep in foul trouble. Fresno State would hover at 6-8 points away from New Mexico, then the Lobos went on a run of their own to push the deficit back out to double digits, 70-60.
Sure seemed like game over at that point, but Fresno State had one more trick up their sleeves. Even being down 8 with 2 minutes to go, the Bulldogs were able to mount a furious rally based on strong defense and New Mexico turnovers. Two Jahmel Taylor 3s, and a Ray Bowles lay-up, and we were locked up at 81. New Mexico would have one more possession with a chance to win, but Antino Jackson would miss a desperation heave, and New Mexico’s rebound and final shot clanged off the back iron, and we were off to OT.
OT was all about free throws, as both teams were already well into the double bonus by this stage. Ray Bowles would be the first to foul out, and then Antino Jackson followed him out. What ended up being the most important was 2 uncharacteristic missed free throws from Deshon Taylor after an intentional foul by Anthony Mathis. An 86% free thrower missing two right in crunch time is never good, and the Bulldogs never recovered. New Mexico would keep them at arm’s length for the rest of the period, and would close it out 95-86/
Being the last game of the regular season, both teams will now prep for the conference tournament. New Mexico will play on Thursday evening, while Fresno State will play in the 4/5 game Thursday afternoon. They will face off against either San Diego State or Wyoming, dependent on the rest of the results from this weekend. The Bulldogs will play the rest of the season without Jaron Hopkins, who had foot surgery on Wednesday. New Mexico has also locked up a winning record for the year, as they can now end up at 17-15 at worst. Fresno State falls to 21-10 on the year, unfortunately will double digit losses this year. Fresno State still has an outside shot at the NIT with a strong showing in the conference tournament, but both teams will probably need to win the tournament to assure post-season play.