FORT COLLINS — At times Saturday afternoon, the 3-point shot was Colorado State’s best friend. At others, it was the Rams’ worst enemy.
Needing some kind of spark to turn its 0-3 Mountain West Conference start around, CSU turned to the long ball against a Fresno State team just days removed from handing No. 21 New Mexico its first loss of the season.
CSU made 14 of 29 from deep, just under 50%, as the Rams shot their way to their first conference victory of the season, 79-57, over the Bulldogs.
“This was a big game for us,” CSU head coach Niko Medved said. “We needed to respond after the struggles we’ve been going through. Our guys, they stayed together, and they prepared well, and I thought we came out and played well on both ends of the floor.
“We never looked back. Every time they made a run, we were able to combat that run with one of our own.”
A combination of the Rams exploiting a tough Fresno State defense while taking advantage of opportunities on offense ultimately led to the victory.
It wasn’t a comfortable win by any means, because when the Rams went cold from behind the arc, Fresno State used that to its advantage to cut into CSU’s lead.
But in a game of runs, CSU always had an answer and used a big one at the end of the game to seal the victory.
The Rams made five 3-pointers in the first half, but really heated up from beyond the arc in the second half, making nine of them.
In the first four minutes of the final 20, Jalen Lake hit a pair and Patrick Cartier added another two as the Rams began to pull away.
“As a team, we celebrate each other’s makes just as much as we do our own,” CSU guard John Tonje said. “I was really excited to see Lake come back and make a couple of big threes for us. That just gives us all energy and we love to see it.”
Lake’s two 3-pointers accounted for CSU’s first six points of the second half and gave the Rams an 18-point lead, their largest of the game to that point.
Fresno State didn’t go away. The Bulldogs whittled the CSU lead to 10 at 49-39 with 15:25 to play.
The Rams responded with a 12-3 run to go up by 19 at 61-42 with 10:06 to play. Fresno State made one last run, closing the gap to nine at 61-52, before the Rams pulled away for good.
Fittingly, three 3-pointers fueled an 18-5 run to close the game out for CSU. The Rams’ largest lead of the game ended up being 23 points, at 79-56 with 51 seconds remaining.
Isaiah Stevens and Cartier led the Rams with 16 points apiece. They each had two of the team’s 14 3-pointers. Tonje had 13 and Lake 11.
“It feels really good, obviously,” Tonje said of getting the win. “It was important to get back on track and get a win for the home crowd. We’re back. We’re feeling good.”
After Fresno State scored the first three points of the game, the Rams answered with a 6-1 run to go ahead 6-4 and CSU never trailed again.
CSU led 16-14 before going on a 19-7 run to take a 14-point lead, its largest of the first half, at 35-21 with 1:40 left before halftime.
Fresno State got two points back and the Rams led 35-23 at the break.
The Rams ended up shooting 54.7% from the field in the game, including a 60% mark in the second half. They had 26 assists to only six turnovers, showing why they are one of the best in the country at that ratio.
All nine Rams scored in the game with seven chipping in at least one 3-pointer.
“I feel like everyone had an unselfish mindset today,” Tonje said. “We were all just trying to get our flow going. Obviously, in the past, we stumbled a little bit in that aspect of the game, but today we were moving and looking more like ourselves.”
CSU (9-8 overall, 1-3 Mountain West) will be back in action Tuesday when the Rams host Air Force.