Despite loss, Fresno fans re­call what it is to be a bas­ket­ball town

The Fresno Bee - - Front Page - BY MAREK WARSZAWSKI [email protected]­

Wasn’t that a blast? Wasn’t that a fun way to spend an early evening in Jan­uary?

Cheers. Groans. Gasps. Deci­bels. Thou­sands of peo­ple hang­ing on ev­ery shot. Re­act­ing an­grily to ev­ery whis­tle that goes against the home team. Chant­ing “DE-fense! DE-fense!” It’s how a col­lege bas­ket­ball game is sup­posed to feel like – and how Save Mart Cen­ter rarely does.

Satur­day was the ex­cep­tion as well as a re­minder. The Big Box Arena on Shaw Av­enue can be the set­ting for a rau­cous at­mos­phere. And Fresno hasn’t com­pletely for­got­ten how to be a bas­ket­ball town.

No, Fresno State didn’t pull the upset. The Bull­dogs didn’t send all 9,586 fans home happy, many of whom were at­tend­ing their first game of the sea­son. Thanks in large part to su­pe­rior length at nearly ev­ery po­si­tion, No. 10 Ne­vada pre­vailed 74-64 to hand Fresno State its first Moun­tain West loss.

I could use our time to­gether to write about Ne­vada’s 27-3

edge in sec­ond-chance points, fu­eled by 17 of­fen­sive re­bounds. Or about how Fresno State missed 13 of 20 layups, forced only seven turnovers and couldn’t seem to get a call in the sec­ond half.

The Bull­dogs were out­played, out­mus­cled and out-toughed by a big­ger, bet­ter, more ex­pe­ri­enced team. Sim­ple as that.

“I told our guys they’ve done that to a lot of peo­ple,” Fresno State coach Justin Hut­son said. “I’ve played that group ... for a while, they’re big, they’re tough and they go. We could have been bet­ter.”

He’s right. Fresno State could have boxed out bet­ter, fought harder for de­fen­sive re­bounds and been stronger in the key. When 6-foot-8 Nate Grimes re­sorts to a dou­ble-clutch, up-and-un­der move at the rim, as he did in the sec­ond half, you know Ne­vada’s length was in his head.

But that’s not re­ally the last­ing im­pres­sion. Rather, I’ll re­mem­ber the sight of a lower bowl at SMC that was nearly filled, plus a cou­ple thou­sand fans in an up­per deck that is nor­mally cur­tained off. And I’ll re­mem­ber the noise the crowd pro­duced, even though it didn’t fuel the Bull­dogs to their first vic­tory over a Top 25 team since 2002.

I thought Hut­son struck the per­fect tone in his postgame re­marks. He cred­ited Ne­vada, ac­cu­rately de­scribed his team’s short­com­ings and didn’t fall into any lame plat­i­tudes about moral vic­to­ries.

“It was great to see the Red Wave out tonight,” the first-year coach said. “We did a lot of good things to stay in the game. But they’re still go­ing to put an L at the end of the col­umn.”

Rather than lament a missed op­por­tu­nity, my take­away will be about how, for at least one evening, the SMC felt lively again. It felt like a col­lege bas­ket­ball venue that you see in cities like Durham, North Carolina; Lawrence, Kansas; and, yes, Reno.

It felt like the place to be.

Cer­tainly, there were hic­cups. While the arena was de­cently full at tipoff, thou­sands were still wait­ing to get in.

Part of that is the habit of Fresno State fans to show up 5 min­utes be­fore tipoff. Re­mem­ber foot­ball sea­son? Hav­ing Cam­pus Pointe and Bull­dog Grill di­rectly across the street doesn’t help mat­ters. There’s al­ways time for one more drink.

Part of it is SMC op­er­a­tors don’t ex­pect fans to show up for Bull­dogs bas­ket­ball games, so they don’t have enough staff sell­ing tick­ets or do­ing se­cu­rity checks. Hence the ab­surdly long lines. If the Red Wave keeps turn­ing out in big num­bers, that’ll need to change.

It prob­a­bly took un­til half­time un­til ev­ery­one set­tled into their seats. And since the Bull­dogs only trailed 37-32, there was still plenty to cheer about.

Help­ing the fans find their lungs was arena hype man DJ Kay Rich, a new ad­di­tion this sea­son. While I might think it ab­surd that peo­ple need to be told when to cheer, many of them haven’t at­tended a col­lege bas­ket­ball game in so long that per­haps they do.

“If you’re proud to be a Bull­dog fan, I need you to stand up right now!” Rich bel­lowed over the pub­li­cad­dress sys­tem be­fore the start of the sec­ond half.

“If you’re part of the Red Wave, stand up right now!”

“If you’re born and raised in Cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia, make some noise right now!”

And you know what? Peo­ple did.

So much of the dis­cus­sion about Fresno State bas­ket­ball, es­pe­cially the dwin­dling fan in­ter­est over the last two decades, is rooted in the past.

It’s about Jerry Tarka­nian and how he di­vided the com­mu­nity. It’s about Ray Lopes and Terry Pettis, two in­fa­mous names. It’s about how the Bull­dogs never fin­ished bet­ter than fifth in the West­ern Ath­letic Con­fer­ence with Paul Ge­orge, who be­came an NBA All-Star. Or the de­cent suc­cess un­der Rod­ney Terry that, ex­cept for a week in March 2016, never cap­tured the Red Wave’s imag­i­na­tion.

But you know what? Those days are gone. They don’t re­ally mat­ter any­more. This was that long-awaited fresh start. A clear sign that fans want to cheer the Bull­dogs again.

In­stead of a li­brary dur­ing fi­nals week, SMC felt like a lively bas­ket­ball arena. That might not get you a W at the end of the col­umn, but it is a vic­tory.

CRAIG KOHLRUSS ck­[email protected]­

Ne­vada for­ward Jor­dan Caro­line scores dur­ing the Wolf Pack’s 74-64 vic­tory over the Fresno State Bull­dogs at the Save Mart Cen­ter on Satur­day. Caro­line had 19 points and 16 re­bounds, with seven of­fen­sive re­bounds.

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