The Bulldog men's basketball team continued its hot start to the second half of Western Athletic Conference play by stunning defending champion Utah State 60-54 before a season-best 7,590 fans on Saturday night at the Save Mart Center.
"I told our guys that we started winning this game on Monday when we came back from a tough road trip and got right back in the gym and got to work with the right body language," first-year Bulldogs head coach Rodney Terry said. "I'm real proud of our guys for how hard they fought and played tonight. Utah State has a great team that plays at a very high level. We did a great job after that of really protecting the basketball."
That may be the understatement of the night as Fresno State (11-14, 3-6 WAC) tied a school-record with just three turnovers, which equaled the three committed in 1984 against Long Beach State. The 'Dogs also tied a season-best with 12 steals and forced 16 turnovers by the Aggies, who had no steals.
"Give them (Bulldogs) credit... They were excited to play," reigning WAC Coach of the Year Stew Morrill said of the Bulldogs. "Their pressure was good and they forced a lot of turnovers."
While the Aggies never went away until Fresno State's 6-2 sophomore guard Kevin Olekaibe, who led all scorers with 26 points, slammed down the clinching transition dunk with 4.8 seconds left, the 'Dogs never trailed for the second straight game and led by as many as 11 midway through the first half.
"Coach Terry always tells me to let it come to me in the offense," Olekaibe said. "My teammates found me on the floor and I was just going as hard as I could to help my teammates."
Olekaibe, the WAC's second-leading scorer and one of the top five sophomore scoring threats in the country, converted 10-of-21 field goal attempts, including four 3-pointers, as he tallied his tenth game of season with 20 or more points.
Fresno State outscored Utah State 16-0 in points off turnovers and overcame USU's 40-24 edge in rebounding to score its first victory over the Aggies since sweeping a pair of contests in 2007.
Jerry Brown added 14 points and eight rebounds and Tyler Johnson had 12 for the Bulldogs (11-14, 3-6 Western Athletic), who won consecutive conference games for the first time this year.
Fresno State had cruised to an early 15-4 advantaged before Utah State closed to within five (21-16) at halftime.
"They jumped us early, and we didn't make the plays we needed to when the game was on the line," Morrill said.
The second half featured an intense battle down the stretch with the Aggies tying the tilt once at 34-34 and closing to a one-point deficit on four separate occasions, with the latest coming when Utah State's All-WAC guard Brockeith Pane netted a jumper with 5:15 to play to cut the 'Dogs lead to 47-46.
And that's when Brown showed no fear and drained his first career 3-pointer with authority.
"I knew where my feet were, just wanted to be aggressive like Coach told us," Brown said of attempting and making his first ever 3-pointer. "I'd already made a couple from that same spot and it was one of those things Coach (Terry) told me before the game, `Don't think about it, just play,' and that's what I did. I played and just took the shot and it went in and I was excited about it."
That defining moment helped the Bulldogs maintain control a crucial stage where the Aggies nearly broke through and used the steady hands of Johnson and Olekaibe, who converted a combined six-for-six at the free throw line in the final 37 minutes to seal off the six-point win.
Morgan Grim and Preston Medlin led Utah State (12-12, 4-5) with 13 points apiece.
Terry also took time during his post-game press conference to congratulate the undefeated Fresno State women's basketball team for earning a big 61-59 road win at rival Louisiana Tech earlier on Thursday.
"As big a win as this was for us tonight, and our guys competed extremely hard, I'd like to say congratulations to our women's program as well," Terry noted of the Bulldog women who are 19-4 and improved to 7-0 in WAC play. "They had a huge win up in Ruston against a tough LA Tech team and Coach Wiggins, (that's a) great job ... staying undefeated in league play. They're off to a great start and I just wanted to congratulate them as well."