Kevin Olekaibe scored the first four points of the second half en route to game-high 18 points as the Bulldogs used a stingy defense to hold off the Redbirds in the season opener for both teams.
“Our defense held us together all night,” said Fresno State head coach Rodney Terry.
But what the Bulldogs weren’t doing was scoring points.
“This time of year, early in the year, your defense is always a lot of times ahead of your offense,” added Terry.
FS shot just 40.5% from the field, and Olekaibe was just 5-of-16, including a paltry 1-of-6 from the 3-point line.
“I had to find other ways to score,” said Olekaibe. “I got to take what they give me. I tried to go to the hole and draw contact.”
He was 7-of-8 from the charity stripe as the ‘Dogs shot 76% from the line as a team.
Kevin Foster, who got the start after the half, scored his second basket in seven attempts to pull the Bulldogs back within one after Illinois State took a 33-30 lead at the 16:19 mark of the second half. After making his first shot just 15 seconds into the game, Foster missed his next five shots.
“They told me to keep my head up and keep playing hard,” said Foster.
In the second half, he was 2-of-3 while playing more inside. “I was more comfortable inside. Coach told us we need an inside presence, I stepped into the role and did my best.”
A quick five-second call after Foster’s basket marked the Redbirds 15th turnover of the game giving the ‘Dogs the ball back. Olekaibe missed an easy layup but Brown followed up the miss to give FS back the lead at 34-33.
“Jerry Brown has really evolved into his role, in terms of what were asking him to do. In terms of being a junkyard dog,” said Terry. “We haven’t asked him to score one basket this year. But we’ve asked him to bring energy.”
Brown scored all three of his baskets off tips and finished with seven points and six rebounds.
But ISU scored the next five points building its largest lead at four points. Then KO went to work. His three-point play at the 13:22 mark ignited the team, the crowd, and sparked a 12-0 run. The defense stepped up its intensity prompting the Redbirds’ Anthony Cousins to miss an open layup. Steven Shepp would capitalize off the miss, taking the rebound coast to coast for a circus layup giving FS back the lead for good at the 13:46 mark.
Fresno State would hold Illinois State scoreless for nearly nine minutes of the second half.
“We always talk about consecutive stops. We were getting consecutive stops and finishing off defensive possessions,” said Terry.
Olekaibe scored eight of the 12 points during the run that didn’t until Jon Ekey’s dunk at the 5:51 mark. But the Bulldogs weren’t doing much on the offensive end not scoring in over a six-minute span. Foster’s basket with 1:54 to play was the Bulldogs first points since Olekaibe made three free throws at the 7:56 mark.
Illinois State cut the Bulldogs’ lead down to one 48-47, after Nic Moore’s three-pointer. But Olekaibe would be clutch down the stretch once again as his three-point play with 1:06 remaining put the game away. Jonathan Wills would ice the game with four free throws in the final minute.
Olekaibe didn’t score his first points until the 6:46 mark of the first half with a three-point play that gave the ‘Dogs the first double-digit lead of the game at 20-9.
But Fresno State struggled to score from inside with Grant Hefeng being ineffective in his first career start. Steven Shepp, Tyler Johnson, and Garrett Johnson each made a three in the first 12 minutes of action while Olekaibe remained scoreless. Illinois State closed the gap to seven, 22-15, prompting Terry to call a timeout. Next possession, Jerry Brown was called for travel. The Bulldogs had 20 turnovers in the game.
Fresno State shot just 32% from the field in the first half, however, was 4-of-8 from beyond the arc. Illinois State out-rebounded the ‘Dogs by seven as well in the first stanza. But the Redbirds' 10 turnovers, 13 team fouls, and inability to score as well allowed the ‘Dogs to build double digit leads twice. Nonetheless, FS saw its double-digit lead fade away after ISU used a 7-0 run to tie the game at 24 with 1:24 remaining in the first half.
The ‘Dogs added two free throws to take lead before John Wilkins scored in the final second to tie the game 26-26 at the break.
Wills scored the first points of the game with an outside shot from just inside the 3-point line; he didn’t attempt another basket on the night. He finished with six points.
Rodney Terry became the 11th Bulldog head MBB coach to begin his coaching career with a win. The last Fresno State head MBB coach to not win his debut was Jerry Tarkanian in 1995.
All nine of the scholarship players that dressed played. Daquan Brown did not dress nor sat on the bench as he continues to serve an indefinite suspension. For the second straight week, he sat in the stands two rows behind the Bulldog bench.
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