#MWMadness: Fresno State's Precise Shooting Sends It Into Friday's Semifinal Round
By W.G. Ramirez
Special to TheMW.com
LAS VEGAS - With a little more than three minutes remaining in Thursday's quarterfinal of the 2016 Mountain West Men's Basketball Championship, Marvelle Harris's two-handed flush gave Fresno State an 82-71 lead over UNLV, and the school's marching band erupted with an M-V-P chant.
Two messages were being sent: The band agreed with the coaches' choice for league MVP, and the Bulldogs were all but certain of advancing to Friday's semifinal round.
The second-seeded Bulldogs ended No. 7 UNLV's postseason run with a hard-fought 95-82 victory, and will face the winner of Thursday's late semifinal between Colorado State and Boise State.
"We knew we were going to be playing a very talented team," Fresno State coach Rodney Terry said. "Coach Simon has done a great job on a difficult situation. He's done a great job with this group and we knew he was going to have this group ready to play at a very high level and ready to compete for 40 minutes."
The Bulldogs were led by Julien Lewis, who had 27 points and eight rebounds, while Cezar Guerrero added 17 points and Harris had 16.
Though UNLV survived a triple-overtime game the night before against Air Force, the Rebels hung with Fresno State and decent offensive numbers.
But while the Rebels shot the ball well, hitting 47 percent (30-of-63) in the game, the Bulldogs were a tad better, hitting 36-of-73 (49 percent), including 5-of-16 from 3-point range. The Bulldogs also outrebounded UNLV, 40-31.
"We knew they had played a triple-overtime game, and one of our strengths is getting out and running," Harris said. "So that's what we wanted to do, and by doing that we thought we could get into their bench and they didn't really have a deep bench because of certain things that happened. So I think we used that to our advantage."
And even when Harris found himself in foul trouble, collecting his fourth with 10:50 left in the game, Fresno State got three crucial baskets by Terrell Carter, helping the Bulldogs extend their lead to 72-61 with 7:52 left. The Rebels briefly cut the margin to six, but Fresno scored five quick points to go up 77-66 with six minutes left in the game.
"He's a big body, he can get things into the paint," Harris said of Carter. "And by him getting to (Stephen) Zimmerman, and dealing with that big post presence it got to him and got him tired and opened up the lane and he did a great job. He finished at a high level. So he gave us a great effort today.
Zimmerman, UNLV's 7-foot center, eventually fouled out of the game with 2:27 left in the game after scoring 13 points and grabbing 6 rebounds.
"We're going to come down every time and try to throw a ball inside," Terry said. "We played a lot this year through our guards, and our big guys have been serviceable for us in terms of screening, rolling, and when called upon to score at times they've been able to do that for us. We knew we had an advantage inside, almost to a fault sometimes."
UNLV was led by Patrick McCaw, who scored a game-high 28 points, while Jerome Seagears had 17.
"I think you saw some effects, you know, obviously, of just the duration of minutes and all the exhaustion from really the season, but especially such an epic game yesterday on a few of our shots," UNLV interim coach Todd Simon said. "We're not a team that's 6 for 22 from three overall. You saw some of that. We were maybe six inches or a half step slow on a number of dribble drives or help sides, and some of those things that kind of point to, maybe just a little bit of legs moving slower than what the mind wanted them to."
UNLV did its best to keep things close in the first half. Trailing 18-12, Ike Nwamu got things going with a strong move to the basket, cutting across the paint to the right side for a layup, to cut the deficit to four.
A bit later, Zimmerman's alley-oop from Seagears made it 23-16, but on the Rebels' next time down the court, Harris stole the ball and drove for a layup at the other end to put the Bulldogs up by nine.
Though The Runnin' Rebels went on a hot streak, hitting 7-of-9 from the floor, that didn't stop Harris from living up to his title, as he dribbled around his back and drove baseline for a reverse layup to give the Bulldogs a 27-18 lead with 11:45 left and igniting the Fresno State crowd.
"We were battling hard, but you could tell on a few shots that we didn't have the same legs," Nwamu said. "So it's not an excuse, but it did play a role."
The Rebels pulled within two with 2:30 left in the half, after Jalen Poyser canned two free throws, but a 3-pointer by Lewis with 1:52 left pushed the lead to 40-35.
While UNLV had more turnovers (9-2) than the Bulldogs in the first half, Fresno State beat the Rebels on points off turnovers, 16-0, and the Bulldogs led 40-35 at the break.
Fresno State opened the second half on a 6-0 run, only to see UNLV respond with a 6-0 run of its own. The Bulldogs eventually built their lead to 10 with 13:02 left in the game, when Karachi Edo laid it in, and they maintained their advantage throughout.
The Bulldogs and the winner of Colorado State-Boise State tip Friday at 8:30 p.m.
Willie Ramirez is a Las Vegas-based freelance reporter and Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter: @WillieGRamirez