“It is almost like a rivalry,” the Wolf Pack coach said this week.
The two schools are just 200 miles and one state apart. They have met on the basketball court 89 times over the last 90 years and have battled for championships in the Far Western Conference, Western Athletic Conference and now the Mountain West. The Wolf Pack and Bulldogs have also met in the National Invitation Tournament (1997), the WAC tournament (2008, 2011) as well as the NCAA Division II Pacific Coast Regional (1966). The only schools the Pack has played as often or more in its history are Chico State (90 times), Pacific (99), San Jose State (99) and UC Davis (102).
It’s clearly a full-fledged rivalry.
“It’s two teams that can’t seem to get away from each other,” Carter said.
Lately they can’t seem to decide a basketball game in 40 minutes. The Wolf Pack, which will host the Bulldogs Wednesday night (7:05 p.m.) at Lawlor Events Center, has had to go to overtime in three of its last four meetings with its San Joaquin Valley rivals.
“Ever since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here a long time (since 1999), it seems like all of our games have been close,” Carter said.
“It’s two teams that play extremely hard,” said Pack point guard Deonte Burton, who scored 32 points in a 96-86 double-overtime win at Fresno on Jan. 22. “They aren’t going to back down and we’re not going to back down.”
And the Pack usually comes out the winner. The Wolf Pack, which owns a 51-38 edge over Fresno State, has won six of the last seven, 14 of the last 18 and 20 of the last 27 games between the two schools. A win on Wednesday will also give the Pack its first two-game series sweep over an opponent since it joined the Mountain West before last season.
Sweep, though, is another label Carter doesn’t like to use.
“We don’t look at it as a sweep,” Carter said. “We just look at it as a chance for another victory.”
Make that another extremely important victory. The Wolf Pack (12-12 overall) is tied for third in the Mountain West with UNLV at 7-4. Fresno State (11-13 overall) is tied for eighth in the Mountain West with Utah State at 4-7.
“We really have to get this one,” Burton said. “We need to start building up wins going into the Mountain West tournament.”
“It’s a game we must win,” Pack guard Michael Perez said.
Carter, once again, is afraid of labels.
“Every game is important,” Carter said. “To me, every game is big.”
The top five teams in the Mountain West will receive a first-round bye in the conference tournament March 12-15 in Las Vegas. The Pack has just seven league games remaining this year (four at home).
“We are jockeying for position for the tournament,” Carter said.
The Bulldogs are led by guards Tyler Johnson, Marvelle Harris and Cezar Guerrero. Johnson, a 6-4 senior, averages 15.9 points and 7.4 rebounds and had 20 points and 11 boards against the Pack last month. Harris, a 6-4 sophomore, averages 14.6 points and 5.4 rebounds and had 18 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists against the Pack in Fresno. The 6-1 Guerrero, just a sophomore, averages 14.2 points and 4.0 assists.
But they are not alone.
Paul Watson, a 6-7 freshman, averages 10.0 points and 4.8 rebounds. Allen Huddleston, a 6-1 senior, averages 9.1 points a game and had 13 points in just 16 minutes off the bench against the Pack three weeks ago. Alex Davis, a 6-9 junior, chips in with 5.4 points a game off the bench.
The Bulldogs are also riding a three-game winning streak while the Pack brings a two-game losing streak into the game.
“They are playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Carter said. “The game before their winning streak they took UNLV to overtime before losing.”
“This is definitely a dangerous game,” Perez said. “It’s a game we can’t look past. We know they will be hungry to defeat us at home after we beat them at their place.”
Carter, whose team is just 6-5 at Lawlor this year (Fresno is 2-8 on the road), said the overtime victory at Fresno State was a “huge” win for his Wolf Pack.
“It showed a lot of will to win,” Carter said. “It showed how much we have improved over a year ago.”