TCU’s turnaround men’s basketball season under first-year coach Jamie Dixon crossed a new threshold Wednesday in Schollmaier Arena.
The Horned Frogs knocked off Fresno State, 66-59, in their opening game of the NIT to become the school’s first team in 12 seasons to post a 20-win season. The Frogs (20-15) also became the first team since 2005 to win an NIT contest by knocking off the Bulldogs (20-13) behind a balanced scoring attack led by Alex Robinson’s team-high 14 points.
With the victory, TCU will play its second-round NIT matchup at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Iowa. The Hawkeyes (19-14), a No. 1 seed in the NIT, knocked off South Dakota, 87-75, Wednesday night in Iowa City, Iowa to secure Sunday’s home date against the Frogs.
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TCU wasted no time in taking control of Wednesday’s contest, holding Fresno State without a field goal for the first 4:45 while stepping out to a quick 13-4 lead. The Frogs eventually built a 12-point lead, then let it slip away briefly in the second half, before rallying to boost their record to 14-6 in home games before an announced crowd of 4,271.
For the Frogs’ players, hitting the 20-win milestone marked a significant reason for celebration.
“To get this win is really big. It’s a huge boost to our program,” said Robinson, a sophomore from Mansfield Timberview who began his college career at Texas A&M. “Growing up as a kid, when you see teams that are in the postseason time and again, you tend to become a fan. Having kids, especially local kids, see this and come to our games and see us winning, that will be huge for our program moving forward.”
What is huge today, in the estimation of the team’s four seniors, is securing the first postseason triumph in their college careers. Forward Chris Washburn, a senior who came off the bench to contribute 6 points and 4 rebounds in 16 minutes of physical play inside, noted that this contest felt a lot better as a potential final bow in Fort Worth than the team’s 75-74 loss to Kansas State on March 1 during senior night festivities.
“Our senior night game didn’t go as planned. So to be able to come back in front of the fans and get a win for them and for us is huge for us,” Washburn said. “It’s huge to put TCU back on the map and just have everybody looking out for us again.”
For most of the first 30 minutes, TCU controlled the momentum and the scoreboard before Fresno State began finding the range from beyond the arc. The Bulldogs’ long-range jumpers eventually helped them build a brief lead, 43-42, before a thunderous dunk by TCU’s Kenrich Williams at the 11:26 mark quieted that surge. Williams posted his 15th double-double of the season, finishing with 13 points and 10 rebounds. But his dunk after winning a scramble for a loose ball provided a momentum-turner at a key moment.
“That rallied us together. Everyone went crazy,” Robinson said. “That was a huge play.”
Fresno mounted one more rally, getting the game tied at 47-47, before TCU went on a 13-2 run to take control of the contest. Robinson began the game-turning stretch with a layup at the 9:05 mark, then added a three-pointer moments later. A Williams layup, a Jaylen Fisher 3-pointer and another Robinson layup pushed the lead back to double-digits, 60-49, with 5:16 remaining and the Frogs made the lead stand up the rest of the way.
Dixon praised his team’s defensive effort in holding the Bulldogs to a 42 percent shooting performance from the field (21-of-50) and limiting them to six offensive rebounds. TCU won the battle of the boards, 39-28.
“The game wasn’t pretty for us offensively but we grinded it out. And we outrebounded them by 11,” Dixon said. “That’s the team we’ve got to become when games are like that. That was great to see.”
Also good, in Dixon’s estimation, was securing win No. 20 in his first season coaching his alma mater.
“Twenty wins is a lot. It’s hard to do,” said Dixon, a point guard on an NIT team (1986) and an NCAA Tournament team (1987) during his college career. “It’s something that we expect to be a standard. I want 20 to be something we hit in early February, not in the middle of March. But that’s what our goal is and we’ve got to keep doing it. We’re excited. This is a big step. Postseason wins are good.”
FRESNO ST. (20-13): B.Williams 2-8 0-0 4, Russo 3-5 3-6 9, J.Taylor 2-5 0-0 6, Hopkins 5-11 2-4 12, Watson 3-5 0-2 8, Edo 0-2 1-2 1, Carter 3-5 0-0 6, D.Taylor 3-7 4-5 13, Bittner 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 21-50 10-19 59.
TCU (20-15): Miller 1-8 3-4 6, Brodziansky 2-4 0-2 5, K.Williams 4-6 4-4 13, Robinson 5-8 3-7 14, Fisher 2-9 3-6 9, Shepherd 1-3 0-0 2, Washburn 2-4 2-4 6, B.Parrish 2-6 1-2 6, Bane 2-3 0-0 5. Totals 21-51 16-29 66.
Halftime—TCU 30-25. 3-Point Goals—Fresno St. 7-15 (D.Taylor 3-4, Watson 2-2, J.Taylor 2-4, Hopkins 0-1, Russo 0-2, Bittner 0-2), TCU 8-20 (Fisher 2-6, K.Williams 1-1, Brodziansky 1-1, Bane 1-2, Robinson 1-2, Miller 1-3, B.Parrish 1-5). Fouled Out—Washburn, B.Williams. Rebounds—Fresno St. 27 (Hopkins 8), TCU 36 (K.Williams 10). Assists—Fresno St. 16 (Hopkins, Watson 4), TCU 12 (Robinson 5). Total Fouls—Fresno St. 25, TCU 21. A—4,271 (7,201).