#MWMadness: Fresno State Holds Off UNLV's Late Charge, Moves into Title Game

 

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By W.G. Ramirez
Special to TheMW.com

 

LAS VEGAS - After missing the championship game last season, it was understandable that Fresno State got a little overzealous when it appeared they were cruising to their third title game in four years.

The Bulldogs built a 20-point, third-quarter lead against UNLV in Wednesday's semifinal of the 2016 Mountain West Women's Basketball Championship, only to see it disintegrate to a mere two points with 27 seconds left.

Thankfully for them, Alex Furr and Moriah Faulk each hit a pair of free throws in the waning moments, and the Bulldogs escaped with a 66-60 victory.

The second-seeded Bulldogs will meet 22nd-ranked and No. 1 seed Colorado State for the championship on Friday at Noon.

"I thought we were okay, even with a 10-point lead, when we lost some of it," Fresno State coach Jaime White said. "But less than 10, I was getting a little nervous. And then we had a couple of turnovers. We've never turned the ball over like that in the late-game situation. I think maybe we celebrated a little too early."

Trailing by eight, UNLV's Nikki Wheatley came up with a huge steal on an inbounds pass, and after missing a layup, Dylan Gonzalez was there for the put back to cut Fresno State's lead to 61-55.

After Faulk hit one of two free throws, Rebels guard Brooke Johnson fired a crisp pass under the hoops to Wheatley, who converted a three-point play to slice Fresno State's lead to four, 62-58.

On the next possession, it was Dakota Gonzalez who came up with steal at midcourt, and Dylan Gonzalez once again was there to follow for a put back to make it a one-possession ball game, 62-60, with 27 seconds left in the contest.

"I actually thought ... that we've got this, like we were going to beat them," UNLV coach Kathy Olivier said. "And you could see it in their eyes. Not one single player thought it's over. That's saying a lot about them as individuals."

But after Furr hit her free throws, Johnson misfired a 3-point attempt that was rebounded by Faulk, who put the game out of reach for good.

Fresno State was led by Toni Smith, who registered her third double-double of the season with 18 points and 12 rebounds, which tied a career high. Bego Faz Davalos added 13 points, eight rebounds and four blocks, while Brittany Aikens and Faulk each had 10.

"UNLV is a great team. Brooke Johnson, the Gonzalezes, (Aley) Rohde," White said. "Really hard to guard, long, athletic, I thought they did a really great job. I thought UNLV did a great job defending. They started to trap on the wings. And then we missed a couple. So we were transitioning, and we didn't really transition the best.

"We could have taken care of the ball better. Really proud of our girls. All year we've had to adjust and adapt during games, and we continued to do that."

Both teams opened the game pressuring the ball, eliminating any sort of penetration to the paint and forcing one another to use their perimeter game. The scheme made perfect sense since the game featured the league's top centers in Faz Davalos and Rohde.

Despite starting the game mired in a 5 of 19 skid from the floor, the Lady Rebels held a 12-11 lead in the first quarter until Fresno State's Brittany Aikens drilled a 3-pointer with :02 seconds left, giving the Bulldogs a 14-12 lead.

From there, Fresno State took advantage of its second-chance points, outscoring UNLV in that category, 13-0, which was the difference when the teams went into the locker room, as the Bulldogs used a 25-11 run to take a 36-23 lead at halftime.

The Lady Rebels were led by Wheatley's 13 points, while Rohde and Dakota Gonzalez both contributed with 10. Fresno State clamped down on Johnson, the Lady Rebels' sharpshooter from long-range, as the UNLV guard scored just seven points, bringing an end to her nine-game double-digit scoring streak.

UNLV came into the game leading the Mountain West with a +7.5 rebounding margin, but Fresno State outrebounded the Lady Rebels, 42-35 - including a monstrous 25-12 advantage in the first half.

The winner of Friday's championship receives an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. It'll mark just the sixth time the top two seeds have advanced to the championship game.

"You have to respect what they've done, and we definitely do," White said of Colorado State. "But you have to respect what we've done. And I think we've played some big teams in our preseason. We've played a lot of tight games. And we've come out on top. And so I expect it to be a really good game."

 

Willie Ramirez is a Las Vegas-based freelance reporter and Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter: @WillieGRamirez