NCAA Tournament: Utah Utes hang tight to beat Fresno State Bulldogs

Utah knocks off Fresno State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament after the Bulldogs took a one point lead in the second half.

Georgia Bulldogs
Utah Utes

Two words: Jakob Poeltl. Get to know that name.

The big man from Utah was a huge reason why the Utah Utes defeated the Fresno State Bulldogs, 80-69, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Denver.

For Fresno State, all week Coach Rodney Terry had stressed the importance of guarding Poeltl, who had a massive size advantage over every Bulldog player on the roster. The tallest Bulldog who played on Thursday was Terrell Carter II, who stands at 6-foot-10. Carter only logged seven minutes and committed three fouls in limited action.

The Utes came in as the 3-seed, and the Bulldogs as the 14-seed. All week, many questions arose as to whether or not Utah was really worth of a 3-seed after getting walloped by Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game last weekend. The Utes lost to the Ducks, who were given a 1-seed in the Big Dance, by a score of 88-57.

The Utes came out and silenced all the critics with a demanding victory of Fresno State, who was making its first tournament appearance in 15 years.

Utah led all but 30 seconds of this one, when Julien Lewis hit a pair of huge shots for the Dogs to give them a 1-point lead in the second half. Utah responded by going on a game-changing 20-2 run to run away with this game and never look back.

Senior guard and the coaches choice for Mountain West Player of the Year, Marvelle Harris, led all scorers in his first-ever NCAA Tournament game. Harris finished with 24 points on a productive 8-of-16 clip from the field to go with six dimes and four boards.

The Bulldogs as a team shot a very decent 49 percent from the field and 83 percent from the charity stripe, but committed too many fouls and could not rebound the basketball to save their lives. Fresno State and Utah finished an identical 38 percent from beyond the arc.

Lewis and Karachi Edo both chipped in 14 points each, while Cullen Russo and Cezar Guerrero combined to core just five points on 2-of-8 from the field. One thing the Bulldogs did well on defense was force turnovers, as Utah committed 19 turnovers and Fresno State had 15 steals on the day, something they had done well all season long.

For Utah, the main reason they won this game was on the glass. The Utes shot just a few percentage points better than the Bulldogs, finishing with a 54 percent mark from the field and an 86 percent mark from the free throw line. However, Poeltl was simply too much for the under-sized Bulldogs.

Poeltl, the 20-year-old from Austria who is most certainly going to be a lottery pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, absolutely shut down the Bulldogs on the glass. Poeltl had more rebounds than the entire Bulldogs team, finishing with a career-high 18 boards and also added 15 points on a 5-of-11 mark from the field.

Lorenzo Bonam added 17 points for the Utes on 7-of-10 from the field, while Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge each scored 16 points on the night.

For Fresno State, their season is over after an improbable run to the NCAA Tournament. Nobody picked them to finish second in the Mountain West, and almost nobody thought they would beat San Diego State two out of three times, with the lone loss against the Aztecs being at Viejas Arena in overtime.

At the beginning of the season, if you told Coach Rodney Terry that his Bulldogs would finish second in the MWC, finish with more than 20 wins, win the conference tournament, and earn the automatic bid, he would’ve been happy with just one of those accomplishments.

It is safe to say that the Bulldogs shattered expectations and gave the team and the school a shot of adrenaline for a team that had struggled in recent years in men’s basketball.

The Bulldogs return a ton of players next season, but they do lose a few players, including senior point guard Guerrero and Harris, who will most likely be on an NBA team next season.

The Fresno State Bulldogs have a bright future, and will more than likely remain a strong force in the Mountain West Conference for years to come.

For the Utes, they will stick around for the weekend and take on the Gonzaga Bulldogs on Saturday, after Mark Few’s team beat the Big East Tournament Champion Seton Hall Pirates. If Jakob Poeltl can continue to play like he did today, the Utes can go a long way in this tournament.