Cal State Fullerton players have talked a lot this season about their balanced offense, which features four players averaging in double figures. But when crunch time comes, it’s becoming quite obvious the offense is skewed toward one player, junior guard Joe Small.
Small, who hit the game-winning shot in Saturday’s victory over Colorado State, came through again Wednesday night, scoring a career-high 32 points, including 10 during a 1:28 stretch of the second half, to lead Fullerton to a 91-88 victory over Fresno State in the Big West Conference opener for both teams.
A Selland Arena crowd of 9,867, roaring its approval of Fresno State’s 11-point lead midway through the second half, was quickly hushed by Small, who sparked the comeback by scoring 13 consecutive Titan points, including a 10-0 run.
Fullerton (8-2) got some strong inside play down the stretch from Aaron Wilhite (17 points, 15 rebounds) and Agee Ward (12 points, seven rebounds), but it was Small who applied the crowning blow, making six of six free throws in the final 43 seconds to secure the Titans’ first victory in Selland Arena since 1987, and their eighth consecutive win this season.
“It was a Small victory but a great win,” Titan Coach John Sneed said. “To be down 11 on the road, in front of the Red Wave (Fresno State fans) and come back, this team showed what it’s made of. They have a lot of fight in them. We played well in the preseason and some said it was a fluke, but I think we’re for real.”
Small, the former Bolsa Grande High School standout who has scored 26 points or more in six games, certainly is. Of course, both Sneed and Fresno State Coach Gary Colson knew that.
“I said before the game he’s the best shooting guard in the league, and I still think he is,” Colson said.
Small’s second-half performance did nothing to change Colson’s mind.
Sneed called his last timeout with 11:25 remaining and Fullerton trailing, 65-54. Sneed had simple instructions for his players: Get the ball to Small.
“A couple other guys wanted to shoot it, but I said no,” Sneed said. “We had to go to the money man, and considering what happened, I don’t think they can argue with that strategy.”
Small hit a three-pointer, but Dave Barnett’s three-point play kept Fresno State up by 11, 68-57, with 9:34 left.
Small then hit a hanging jumper in the key, a three-pointer from the right corner, an off-balance inside bank shot on which he was fouled and converted the three-point play, and two free throws. Suddenly, Fullerton was down by just one, 68-67, with 7:54 to go.
“I was starting to feel that every shot was going to go down,” said Small, who played community college basketball at nearby College of the Sequoias. “When we went into that slump in the second half, I wanted to step up and take the game over.”
After Small’s scoring spree, Carl Ray Harris’ follow shot put the Bulldogs (5-5) ahead by three, and Small showed he was human by missing a three-pointer. But Fullerton then reeled off six straight points, on baskets by Ron Caldwell, Bruce Bowen and Wilhite, to take a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
A Fresno State cold spell and several turnovers led to the Bulldogs’ demise, and when they were forced to foul in the final minutes, Fullerton hardly winced at the line.
Wayne Williams made three of four free throws in the final 1:44, and Small was perfect from the line in the last minute. The Titans made 21 of 25 free throws in the game.
Fullerton also took advantage of its superior size, outrebounding the Bulldogs, 45-32, and getting solid offensive play inside. Of the Titans’ 32 field goals, eight came on follow shots, 10 on inside shots and four off fast breaks.
Caldwell finished with 13 points, and Bowen, who attended Edison High in Fresno and used to work as a soft-drink vendor in Selland Arena, added eight points and nine rebounds.
Tod Bernard scored 24 points and Barnett added 22 for Fresno.