It does not matter what the name of the team is, Air Force is playing for their lives in each and every one of the final three games of the MWC regular season, playing for not only seeding in the conference tournament but also for consideration for post season play. The Falcons are currently tied for fifth place with Boise State after their loss to the Broncos. Both teams have three games remaining: Air Force at Fresno State, at SDSU and home vs New Mexico; Boise State home, where they are 12-1 this season, this Saturday in a super matchup with CSU, at UNLV and finishes at home vs SDSU. So the Falcons head to Frenso State in a game that is indeed a must win one for Air Force. In my estimation, the Falcons MUST win two out of these last three to most likely get the 5th seeding at the tourney, needing Boise to not win more than two and to not beat SDSU.
A quick round up of the last few weeks begins with New Mexico and the Falcons losing at the Pit 81-58. There is no big spin you can put on this game. The Lobo's had everything to win in this game and everything to lose. A win at home would give them a possible two game lead in the MWC (or keep their one game lead if they won and CSU won) but lose and they could be in a three way tie for first with possibly Air Force having the tie breaker. Air Force on the other hand was, as one put it, 'playing with house money' as they were 11 point underdogs not expected to win on the road. In the end the energy of the Lobo's and their fans triumphed over the Falcons, with NM getting their offense moving inside and out and their defense stopping Air Force. Air Force had good effort across the board but could not hang especially with the two 250# big men of NM. Our two 'Mikes' led the way: Mike Lyons 16pts/48%FG/8-17/4reb but 0-4 3's; Mike Fitzgerald 16 pts/40%FG 4-10/6-7 FT/3reb. Our big men did not contribute many in points this game with only 8 on 3-8 shooting. One of my key's was not letting NM push us out of the lane on our offense. But we ended up shooting 24 threes making only 7 for 29%. Many were very good looking shots that were uncontested but we could not get them to go. We were not successful scoring overall throughout the game both outside as discussed or inside. Lastly, only 10 bench points although playing 71 minutes.
Daunted by the loss to NM, the Falcons went to Nevada and played well for 30 minutes and found themselves with a 10pt lead with 5 minutes to play only to squander the lead (7pts with 1:30 to play) to lose the game 74-69. Pause....Pause....Pause....Reflect....Pause. That is what I did the two hours aftet the ending of that game. Air Force, with a 10 point lead with more than five minutes to play, loses the lead with 31 seconds remaining in the game followed by 4 fouls, a missed layup, a missed three and the loss to the Wolf Pack. Give Nevada credit for never quitting as they pulled away for the win.
Although losing to both New Mexico and Nevada, the Falcons bounced back with a big win at home vs UNLV 71-56. In what may have been the best half of basketball Air Force has played this season, the Falcons (now 15-8/6-4 MWC and tied for fourth with SDSU but holding the tiebreaker) dominated the Rebels going into the locker room with a 14 point halftime lead and finishing with a win over UNLV at the final buzzer. In the first meeting Air Force was dominated on the boards, in the paint and lost in OT on the road. Last game at Nevada Air Force faded down the stretch. Neither happened last night where Air Force played for 40 minutes, played stifling defense even during a 6 minute no scoring drought, and finished strong for the victory. A perfect game? No. But a game with significant areas to put gold stars by for Coach P, the staff and the team. With Air Force playing in an aggressive style I have not seen since the days of Jake Burtschi, they won the rebounding and the points in the paint war. It was a physical game in which fouls were called evenly (AF 16PF's UNLV 15PF's) although many fouls were not called or, from a fan perspective, just missed such as 2 blocking fouls called on Fitzgerald that really seemed to be charges. Overall though, it was a game the officials let the players play. They did try to reel it in a bit in the second half and called a technical on UNLV for tossing a ball at an AF player. None the less, the 'Running Rebels', with 0 fast break points were 'Out Run by the Running Falcons' who scored 13 in transition on the fast break. This combination of up tempo and using the backdoor/3pt Air Force Princeton offense is very good when running on all cylinders.
Air Force then played #22 CSU at home only to lose by 3pts David met Goliath in Clune Arena wearing the colors of CSU, and while David gave it his all he did not slay the giant. Air Force hosted CSU tonight in the second meeting of the season for the two teams, after CSU won the first by 39 points. Even though CSU won the initial matchup in a lopsided manner, they knew better than to take Air Force lightly and indeed the Falcons made it a game losing at the end by three points. Although the MWC scoreboard lead story is that of CSU's win, the headline act of the night was Air Force's Mike Lyons who had a career high 45 points tonight, second in the AF record books to Bob Beckel in 1959 (more on Lyons below). The Falcons worked hard on both ends of the court. Running their offense and looking to penetrate versus the bigger CSU team. It seemed to be effective but the Rams still denied the Falcons good looks inside throughout portions of the game resulting in AF taking 31 3pt shots making 13. But with all said and done, AF competed inside with CSU scoring 32pts in the paint as compared to 34 for CSU. The biggest scoring differences and concerns for AF were second chance points and points from the free throw line. Due to the significant number of offensive rebounds, the Rams ended up with a 18 to 4 advantage in second chance points. Likewise, CSU shot 22 more FTs than did AF making 26pts from the line.....and Air Force lost by three. While the Rams seemed to be in control of the game as the clocked clicked down in the second half by countering the different AF runs, there were moments and opportunities for the Falcons. It was a three point game with more than three minutes to play, but CSU makes one, AF misses two then CSU hits a three. The Falcons also missed four FTs down the stretch in the last 1:38 which just might have made the difference. Fans on both teams appeared to question the officiating, but from this one spectator, the Falcons were not allowed to play as physical as the ranked Rams were without getting whistled. Still, the Falcons had their opportunity to win in their own hands.
Hats off to Mike Lyons who finished with 45 points on 17-25FG/6-13 3pt/5-8FTin 33 minutes of play. It did not feel like he monopolized the ball at all, just one of those nights when he shot when it was there and they went in. In fact AF shot a total of 62FG (compared to 52 for CSU) with 37 attempts by Lyon's teammates. Todd Fletcher had 11Pts all in the second half on 4-8/3-5 3pt shooting plus 6 assists and no turnovers. Kam Williams solid again on 3-5 7pts shooting, 7 pts for Taylor Broekhuis who battled a foot injury all night and only play 17 minutes. The remaining Falcons were inconsistent shooting a combined 6-17 from the field, many on good looking shot opportunities.
After the CSU loss and needing a win that would cement their position in the standings, the Falcons went to Boise looking for a 'W' but lost to the Bronco's in a game that Air Force never seemed to be in, with the final score 77-65. If you had told me that thee point shooting, FT's made, PF's were all the same, that AF out rebounded Boise on both ends of the court, that the Falcons had more 2nd chance points than BSU, I would have said that the Falcons won the game. But, just like a smaller snow blower is less efficient than a big one, Air Force was less efficient in this game on both ends of the court resulting in a Boise State victory that, accompanied with other wins/losses in the MWC, moves them into 5th place with BSU. On the offensive end of the court the Falcons shot only 3 less times than did BSU but made 6 less baskets. Efficiency! Air Force missed several easy layups during the game (at least 3 that were just 'missed' and should have been made)...Inefficient. The Falcons turned the ball over 11 times, 6 more times than did BSU who made that a six point advantage in points off turnovers. Many of the Falcon's turnovers were self induced (no disrespect to BSU's very tough defense last night) with three on the top of my head that were 1) stepping out of bounds; 2) miss handling a pass and 3) simply a bad pass out of bounds....Inefficient. The disappointing part of this is that the Falcons, on offense, did things they needed to do to win: The shot 91% from the FT line, they out rebounded, they shot the same from the arc and, yes, a reasonably good FG percentage so...ahhhhh.........let's change ends to the opposite side of the court and look at our defense. While the offense worked through it's inefficiencies and put them in a position to still win this game, they transitioned to the opposite end of the court and the defense broke down time and time again. First and foremost (for the Boise State fans reading this), the Broncos did what they needed to do on the offensive end, getting balanced scoring inside and out, and having great individual three point efforts from Drmic 3-7, Elorrigaga (made 5) and Bropleh 4-4. But the Falcons perimeter defense just broke down and often the Boise offense made that one extra pass, found a wide open man for a completely uncontested three point shot. Specifically, it happened at the start of both halves of the game and, in both instances, put Air Force behind the eight ball (11-0 Boise start to the first half on 3 3's, 6-0 Boise start to the second half on 2 3's). Credit again to the good ball movement by BSU but the Falcons just did not get to the shooter. I am not a coach and cannot say if it was intensity driven or what, but our defense just did not match the effort of Boise State's offense.
Losing 4 out of 5 games is tough and the Falcon knew they needed to back on track. In a must win game, the Air Force Falcons acted much like their fans in how their most recent game at home versus Wyoming unfolded. Due to a driving snow storm, most fans drove slow to the game, many arriving late or right at tipoff but got into the game and, by the end of regulation, were on their feet screaming 'defense' as the Falcons held off the Cowboys to ensure the win. In similar fashion, the Falcons started off slow on the offensive end, settling for outside shots and slow on the defensive end resulting in a three point barrage by Wyoming. But, just as the fans warmed up, so did the Falcons resulting in Air Force winning over Wyoming 72-66. Wyoming came into this game with leading scorer Leonard Washington back on the court after fighting injuries with a desire to win this game. It was an interesting conundrum for the Falcons, knowing this was a must win game but also knowing they were on a down hill slide losing four of the last five. Credit goes to the Cowboys who played aggressively on both ends of the court and their play in the first half resulted in the Falcons to not fully run their game plan on offense. From a fan perspective, and listening to post game comments, the Falcons did not go aggressively into the lane working inside out and relied on shooting from the arc. Unfortunately the Falcons did not shoot well from the outside during the entire game, and they found themselves down at the half by one point. On defense, AF played a combination of man, matchup and zone, did a very good job of stopping Wyoming inside, but did not defend the arc well. The Cowboys got great effort off the bench from Sobey who shot 6-6 from the three point arc although only averaging 3 ppg during the season and that was key to the halftime score.
Fast forward to the second half and, just like the fans, the Falcons roared to life. Coach Pilipovich, in the post game interview, said he wanted a concerted effort to go inside in the second half. The team heeded his words: while the Falcons shot 29 FGs/14 threes the first half, they shot 22FGs but only 4 three attempts in the second half. The Falcons worked it inside and moved the ball more aggressively with the pass and with better and crisper cuts and screens in the second half. Defense also stepped it up a notch holding the Cowboys down to 21% 3pt shooting in the second vs 44% in the first.
Giant shout out to Kam Williams with a career high in points and a double-double (25pt/27mins/9-13 with 2-3 3's and 5-5FT/10 Reb/3ast/1block). In post game comments he received great words as a compliment from teammate Senior Mike Lyons: "Kam's the man," said Lyons....."He has it in him, and I think he could do that every night if he just settles down. He was a big boost off the bench rebounding and scoring, and I think Air Force is in good hands for years to come. Kam played with intensity off the bench on both ends of the court and that energy seemed to be contagious. Fellow sophomore DeLovell Earls did his part with 12 points on 5-8 shooting plus 4rebs. Mike Lyons, still hampered by his thumb injury contributed 13pts, Mike Fitzgerald 10pts and Todd Fletcher, while only scoring 5pts, contributed 3 assists and 5rebs/2assists while running the offense with no turnovers in 37 minutes of play.
Three games left for Air Force and it begins Saturday. The Falcons are in a must win situation versus Fresno State to help conference tournament seeding and for further post season play opportunities.