Thursday, February 11, 2016

San Diego State Aztecs 57 at Fresno State Bulldogs 58 (NCAA Basketball, Mountain West) - February 10, 2016

There are a few days between California AHL games and I wanted to find something to watch between Bakersfield and San Jose to break up the drive. Fortunately, Fresno State was hosting San Diego State in Mountain West action, so I stopped in this Central California city to check it out.

Fresno State is known as a football school (Derek Carr played here among many others) and won the 2008 College World Series, so basketball gets short shrift. Despite that, the Save Mart Center is one of the most impressive on-campus venues I have seen, it is too bad that so few fans feel the same way.

Located at the northwest corner of Shaw and Chestnut, the arena is quite striking from across the street. I don't know the precise architectural style, but it doesn't look anything like a basketball venue. It was opened in 2003 and Save Mart paid $40 million for 20 years of naming rights, helping to fund construction. At the southeast corner stands a tower named for Larry A. Shehadey, while the box office is on the northwest side, a relatively long walk.

Parking is $10, though I walked from my hotel across the street. The cheapest ticket at the window is $15, which was good enough for me as I figured I could sit anywhere. Upon entering, I noticed that the entire upper bowl was curtained off, and the staircases to the upper concourse were blocked off, so no pictures from there. This also made the seating bowl more crowded than it needed to be.

Inside the lobby sits a sculpture of a fierce-looking bulldog .

The concourse is very wide and more than enough for the crowd, which was announced at 6,476, though I'd guess about 4,000 actually walked through the doors.

There is a display for the College World Series, one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history. Fresno State finished the regular season 37-27 but won their conference tournament (they were in the Western Athletic Conference back in 2008) and were seeded fourth (last) in their regional. They won that, beat Arizona State in the super-regional to make it to Omaha, where they eliminated #2 North Carolina in the semifinals before winning it all over #8 Georgia. Tommy Mendonca was MVP and his trophy is shown here along with his uniform and some other memorabilia.

That was Fresno State’s second national championship, with the first being in softball in 1998, also commemorated here.

I mentioned that basketball is not well-respected here, and a lack of recent success for the men might be part of the reason. Only five NCAA tournament appearances (all as a member of the WAC) and two wins doesn't lead to a strong fan base. And nobody cares about the NIT.

Food options looked pretty plain until I saw a stand off in the corner selling berrocks (the Americanized spelling is used here). These are meat-filled pastries and for $5, a much better option than a hot dog. The two ladies selling them told me that they only do so for Bulldog basketball, so you can’t find them at any other sporting venue. That’s your loss as they were quite tasty.

Ushers do check tickets at the top of the stairs, though they don't monitor your movements once you are in the seating bowl and you can move around to a better section if you are there early enough. However, one section of club seats that are denoted with Bulldogs on the chairback that do have aggressive ushers.

I managed to sit here and was not asked to leave, but others were not so lucky; I saw several fans sneak in only to have the usher rush over to check their tickets and then boot them out when the proper credentials were not provided. I didn’t leave my comfy seat (shot of the section below) during the game for fear I would caught out upon returning.

Overall, Save Mart Center is a very nice venue, but without the fan support to fill up even the lower bowl, it suffers for a lack of atmosphere. Fortunately on this night, Fresno State put on a bit of a show and the crowd was into the game until the end, making it a memorable visit.

The Game

I had already seen both teams on this trip, with Fresno State losing at San Jose State a week prior while San Diego State had won a crazy game at home on Saturday. I thus expected an easy Aztec win, but that was not to be.

The first half saw the officials suffocating the play, as they called 20 fouls (10 per team), pretty much a minute apart each time. The game had no flow whatsoever but each team managed a double-digit run, with the Aztecs scoring 14 in a row to take a 26-14 lead only to have Fresno State come back with 12 straight to tie the game. The half ended in SDSU’s favour 30-29.

The second half started with a foul just one second in. I don’t want to blame the officials as they are just following the rules, but if the play isn’t affected, why call a foul? Basketball already has so many violations and time outs, why add to the misery? One example is the shot clock violation (below) - occasionally the shot clock buzzer sounds just as the defensive team takes possession and starts on a break. The whistle blows, and the ball is inbounded. Why not play advantage?

Anyway, the foulfest continued with 12 whistled in the first 11 minutes. I guess the refs had grown tired of raising fists in the air because all of a sudden, they let the players play for six full minutes, a period during which Fresno State came from 48-42 down to tie the game at 53. The game was tied at the five minute mark, so the Aztec streak of 161 in a row when leading with five to go was not in jeopardy. But their 11-0 start in conference play was.

Unfortunately, the referees arms were once again in shape, and the final three minutes saw six fouls, all leading to free throws. The Bulldogs sank 5 of their 6, while the Aztecs made only 4, with Xylan Cheatham's miss with 57 seconds left the crucial difference. After Fresno State's Marvelle Harris (#23 above) missed a three, SDSU had a chance for the win but Trey Kell (guarding Harris above) missed his jumper and the Aztecs were charged with basket interference to end the game, with the Bulldogs prevailing 58-57. Harris led all scorers with 20 points.

San Diego State outshot the Bulldogs 38% to 35% and outrebounded them 41-29 but turned the ball over 18 times to 11 Fresno State miscues. In the end though, it was their 13/21 performance from the line that doomed them; Fresno State was 16/21 and that was the difference, especially down the stretch. A fun game that could have been much better but for the zealous zebras.


Dog House Grill across the street is the place to go before the game. Happy Hour is from 3-6 on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (and 9-11 on Thursday) and food is good and inexpensive.

Cezar Guerroro is honoured by the student section with a small Hail Cezar banner and several students dressed in togas. He did not do them justice however, with only five points and no assists to go with three turnovers.

This was my 50th NCAA hoops venue. Of those, 5 are tournament events and 4 are temporary arenas, so in terms of active home venues, only 41. That leaves 310. I'd love to do it, but that's approximately 15,000 fouls I have to endure. Worth it?

Next Up

I’m in the Bay Area for the next couple of days and will be checking out Santa Clara hoops on Thursday. The California portion of the trip finishes with an AHL doubleheader in San Jose and Stockton on Saturday, and then I’ll head to Phoenix for Arizona State hoops and Habs at Coyotes before finally returning to New York. Check back to see how things turned out.



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