By Daniel Barrera:
What began with many palm-to-face moments ended with a standing, roaring crowd and a San Jose State victory.
Behind solid free throw shooting and tough defense down the stretch the Spartans defeated their rival the Fresno State Bulldogs 69-62.
The win was not easy for the Spartans who found themselves trailing most of the game and struggling mightily in the first half. Turnovers seemingly stopped both teams from making any strides as 21 miscues were committed in total during the first 20 minutes.
Perhaps the biggest blunder of the first half was a team technical foul called on San Jose State for not having enough players on the court. By this point Fresno State had a 19-12 lead and went into the locker room with a 37-29 advantage.
The Spartans struck early and often in the second half though, working their way back into the game with a 17-4 run the first five minutes out of the half. The run was catapulted by two three-pointers from Ryan Welage and a triple from his sophomore counterpart Cody Schwartz.
Although the two players scored a total of just 14 points in the game, the nine they scored in the first four minutes of the second half were the most important.
The Spartans’ standout Brandon Clarke had a rough first half, committing four turnovers. However, he made up for these struggles by putting together another solid defensive game, blocking five shots.
By the end of the night Clarke had tallied 15 points while shooting over 50 percent from the floor.
Despite Clarke’s efforts, perhaps the biggest offensive performance for the Spartans was senior guard Gary Williams, Jr. who matched a career high with 18 points, 11 of which came from the free throw line as Williams’ aggressive play proved advantageous in drawing fouls. The Vallejo native performed appropriately from the charity stripe, hitting eleven of twelve attempts en route to the victory.
Clarke reflected on the security provided having Williams at the line acknowledging, “every time Gary is fouled that’s two points so it’s always a great thing for us.”
While Williams’ free throws kept the Spartans in the game, the team’s defense is what allowed them to jump ahead for good. Trailing 61-59 with under three minutes to play San Jose State denied the Bulldogs on three consecutive possessions with three blocks that energized the Event Center crowd.
First Isaac Thornton denied Cullen Russo’s layup.
On the Bulldog’s next possession Russo was rejected again, this time by Brandon Mitchell, who tallied another block immediately after rejecting Russo, this time swatting away an attempt by Jahmel Taylor.From there the momentum turned as the Spartans went on a 10-3 run to close out the game.
“We work on defense ad-nauseum,” Williams said.
That defense continued to show as the final seconds ticked away.
Senior guard Jalen James had the biggest sequence in crunch time, hitting a jumper with 21 seconds to go putting the Spartans ahead 64-62 and then drawing a charge on Paul Watson on the defensive end of the floor with 14 second remaining to secure the victory.
“I thought Jalen played an unbelievable game,” said Spartans’ coach Dave Wojcik. “Not only did he make a shot…he had four assists and zero turnovers and two steals. That’s a heck of a day.”
On the Fresno State side head coach Rodney Terry was ejected following back-to-back technical fouls after arguing with officials for an extended period of time. By this point the game was already in the Spartans hands though as Terry was ejected with 12.8 seconds left on the clock.
San Jose State picked up its first win in Mountain West Conference play and will look to build momentum in Southern California. Up next for the Spartans is a road contest against a struggling San Diego State team on Tuesday night.