PROVO — Former BYU coach Steve Cleveland wants his young Fresno State Bulldogs to mature quickly by experiencing what it's like to play a nationally ranked team in a hostile environment.
But for the first 13 minutes Friday in Cleveland's old stomping grounds, the BYU Marriott Center, the Bulldogs were doing as much teaching as the No. 24 Cougars, trailing only 21-20.
But once BYU turned the pace up a few notches, it became clear in a hurry which team was the teacher and which team the student. The Cougars, by finishing the final seven minutes of the first half on a 24-6 run, gave Fresno State a lesson in transition basketball and pulled away for an 83-56 win.
"It took us a lot longer than I would like to get started, as far as playing on attack like we like to," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "But once we got through that we were able to get comfortable and find our rhythm."
After leading 45-26 at the half, the Cougars sputtered briefly and allowed the Bulldogs back to within 14 at 51-37. But once the Cougars ran off another huge run – this one a 26-7 stretch – class was over as BYU's lead reached 36 at one point.
"You have to give BYU a lot of credit. They made baskets and that's why they're a Top 20 team (actually No. 24) in the country," Cleveland said.
The reason for BYU's delayed discovery of the transition game, Rose said, was rebounding. The Bulldogs had five offensive boards early, but no offensive boards over the final 14 minutes of the half, which allowed the Cougars to get out and run.
"That's a big part of how we play," Rose said.
It also helped that Fresno State center Greg Smith sat down early with two quick fouls. Another help was the Cougars solving a matchup problem with forward Nedeljko Golubovic – who led the Bulldogs with 12.
What really seemed to get the wheels turning, however, was Jimmer Fredette getting off the dime and finishing the half scoring 14 of his game-high 24 points. And when Noah Hartsock, who came off the bench to score 21, hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer (only the second trey of his career), the Bulldogs headed to the locker room in shock.
"Finally the energy caught up with us and we were able to get out and run, and get stops, and play the way that we play," Fredette said.
Fresno State's brief comeback in the second half didn't last long because Fredette continued his mastery of picking apart the Bulldogs' defense (six of his eight assists came after the break) and because Hartsock seemed to frequently be in the right place at the right time
In fact, Cleveland said he knew Fredette was going to be a challenge, but Hartsock was the one who put the final dagger into the Bulldogs' side. A good share of Hartsock's minutes came playing the 5 spot.
"Hartsock was the difference maker. He played well, he made shots and he was just so solid," Cleveland said.
Also, Fresno State didn't exactly shoot the ball well – finishing the game at a 35-percent clip and making only 2 of 21 shots from 3-point range.
"We just couldn't make a basket. We're certainly not that poor shooting of a team, but we were tonight," Cleveland said.
The Cougars, despite the win, know they can't have a similar slow start on Wednesday, when rival Utah State visits the Marriott Center, and expect a similar result.
"I think it's going to be another real physical game and a real battle, and we're really looking forward to it," Hartsock said.
A warm welcome: When Cleveland was introduced prior to Friday's game he received a long and loud standing ovation from the sell-out crowd.
"That made me feel good … we did some pretty special things here," Cleveland said.
GAME NOTES: Friday's attendance was 22,700, the third-largest crowd ever for a season-opener at the Marriott Center. … Twelve of BYU's 13 roster players saw action and every one but Nick Martineau scored. … About five NBA scouts, including former Cougar and Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge, were in attendance. … Former Lone Peak High star Bracken Funk played 18 minutes for the Bulldogs and scored two points with five rebounds.