#MWMadness: Fresno State Takes Advantage of Turnovers, Moves into Semis
By W.G. Ramirez
Special to TheMW.com
LAS VEGAS - Twenty-one is generally a lucky number in Las Vegas.
For Utah State it proved to be a detriment, as Fresno State took advantage of 21 turnovers committed by the Aggies, scoring 21 points off of them, en route to a 55-47 victory in Tuesday's quarterfinal matchup of the 2016 Mountain West Women's Basketball Championship.
Bego Faz Davalos, who was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year on Monday, dominated offensively for the Bulldogs, registering a double-double and leading all with 23 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks. With her four blocks, Faz Davalos improves her season total to 123, second in the nation.
Fresno State also got 10 points from Alex Furr, and seven points and seven rebounds from Toni Smith.
The win marked the third time the Bulldogs defeated Utah State in a span of 18 days, winning by an average of six points. Fresno State leads the all-time series with Utah State, 17-2, while the Broncos have won 16 in a row against the Aggies.
"I thought Bego did a great job keeping us in it early and really just kind of getting the ball at the heart of their defense," Fresno State coach Jaime White said. "They're a nice team. And I think obviously their height and then having Funda (Nakkasoglu) on the outside is a good combination. And I think all three of our games have been close.
"This is a tournament and it's supposed to be tough and every team plays hard. In a way it's nice to have a hard game. And now I think we're a little more tuned in and ready to go for tomorrow."
The second-seeded Bulldogs, who are 8-1 all-time in Mountain West tournament play, will meet the winner of UNLV-Boise State in Wednesday's late semifinal, at 9 p.m.
Faz Davalos did most of her damage in the first half, scoring 14 of her points on 7 of 11 shooting. And while she did a nice job of holding it down for Fresno State in the paint, and frustrating Utah State center Deja Mason into foul trouble, there wasn't much she could do to stop Nakkasoglu or Rachel Brewster, who did their best to keep the Aggies in the game from the perimeter.
"Down the stretch, Funda is probably, with her background, and Rachel Brewster with her background are probably the only ones that truly wanted the ball in their hands the last four and a half minutes, especially when Deja Mason fouled out," Utah State coach Jerry Finkbeiner said. "As opposed to Fresno State girls, juniors and seniors, they all wanted the ball in their hands. They all wanted to finish the game out. It was the difference in my mind ... it's frustrating, but at the same time it's a classic difference between a senior-junior driven team and a team that's just trying to get there."
Trailing 28-25 at the half, the Aggies looked plenty mature, as they came out of the locker room on a mission defensively, limiting Fresno State to 10 points, while putting up 14 of their own to pull ahead 39-38 heading into the final quarter.
Finkbeiner said he didn't tell his players anything special at halftime, just reminding them the goal was to win each quarter, and take each period one step at a time. It appeared as if Utah State was using a blueprint from the night before, when Utah State held Nevada to its lowest field goal shooting percentage ever at 18.6 percent (11 of 59), while Nevada's 35 points were the fewest allowed by Utah State this season.
Fresno State shot just 3 of 14 in the third quarter, including 1 of 7 from 3-point range. At the other end, Utah State connected on 5 of 12.
"Everything was fitting in place until the fourth quarter," Finkbeiner said. "I think Deja Mason fouling out hurt us. She was guarding Davalos, and I think that made life easier for her down the stretch."
The Bulldogs regained control of the momentum in the fourth quarter by taking advantage of a series of Utah State turnovers, a total of seven over the final 9:23 of the game.
First, Shauqunna Collins stole an inbounds pass and Brittany Aikens scored on a layup to cut Utah State's lead to one. Moments later, Toni Smith laid it in to give Fresno State a 43-42 lead. Then, one play after Smith converted an and-one, Utah State turned it over on a traveling call and Faz Davalos scored underneath the basket to give the Bulldogs a 48-44 lead and all the momentum they would need to close things out.
"I felt like, okay, now we've got the jitters out,” White said. "It took us three quarters, but at that point we were good to go and just played. That's all the coach ever wants is just for your kids to play fearless. And I felt like at that point we were."
Fresno State is in the semifinals for the fourth consecutive year - every year since joining the conference.
Willie Ramirez is a Las Vegas-based freelance reporter and Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter: @WillieGRamirez