During the first half of MWC play, Air Force was hurt significantly by injuries and youth (the Falcons often played with three freshmen on the floor at once). But the Falcons are healthier than they've been since early in the season, with just two key contributors still out, and their freshmen have played enough that youth no longer is an excuse.
"We're like 20 games into the season," freshman Michael Lyons said after the Falcons' 21st game, a loss Tuesday to San Diego State. "So I don't consider myself a freshman anymore."
The schedule also is more favorable in the near future. After playing three road games in 11 days, Air Force will play four of its next six games at home, including two in a row.
First up is TCU, the team Air Force played in its MWC opener. Air Force was tied with the Horned Frogs late in that contest before falling, 59-50. TCU, however, has lost six of seven conference games since, with its only victory over Wyoming.
"We're definitely going to regroup starting tonight," Lyons said after the San Diego State loss. "We're staring the conference back over, and the home court advantage should help us the first two games. We've just got to come out and play better."
SAN DIEGO STATE 70, AIR FORCE 48: The Falcons talked throughout their practices about protecting the ball and keeping San Diego State off the offensive glass. They did neither, as the Aztecs scored 15 second-chance points and 23 points off 15 Air Force turnovers. A slow start didn't help either. Air Force fell behind 12-0 and never got closer than six.
Evan Washington had no problem describing the elation after Air Force defeated Wyoming on Jan. 30 to snap a 22-game Mountain West Conference regular-season losing skid. "It felt great, and I have to compare it to winning a championship by getting that monkey off our back," Washington said. "Last year, we let losing become part of our mentality, but I think we have a tougher team this year."
Washington was particularly tough for Wyoming to deal with. The junior guard scored a career-high 23 points, including eight during the final 81 seconds. Washington also hit the basket that put Air Force in the lead for good -- a jump shot with 5:35 remaining -- that led the charge to snap a six-game losing streak. The Falcons hadn't won a regular-season conference came since March 5, 2008.
Air Force rediscovered the 3-point shot, making 11 of 25 attempts, and also hit well from the free-throw line (13 of 16). "We made free throws when we needed to," coach Jeff Reynolds said. "We didn't shoot the ball well in the first half, but in the second half, we shot it the way we do in practice." Air Force had seven 3-point hoops in the second half to turn a three-point halftime deficit into a seven-point victory.
--The 11 3-point baskets against Wyoming on Jan. 30 tied a season high. The Falcons also hit 11 treys against Prairie View A&M.
--Scoring 70 points against Wyoming on Jan. 30 ended a streak of six consecutive games in which Air Force scored 54 or fewer points. The Falcons lost all six of those games.
ON THE SPOT: Air Force continues to struggle on the boards. The Falcons were out-rebounded 35-27 on Tuesday night at San Diego State. They have been out-rebounded in 10 consecutive games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're going to win some games in this conference. I go to the practices all the time and tell Jeff to hang in there and not get too frustrated with this. Absolutely, this program is going in the right direction." -- Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh, in the Denver Post, expressing his satisfaction with the performance of coach Jeff Reynolds.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: Air Force enjoyed one of its top moments of the season by beating Wyoming on Jan. 30 for its first conference win in 22 months, and it could provide a jolt that sparks the team to a few more surprise wins. The undermanned Falcons also have received a boost with the return of leading scorer Grant Parker, who forms a nice one-two punch with Evan Washington.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Grant Parker, C Mike McLain, G Michael Lyons, G Todd Fletcher, G Evan Washington. Key Subs -- F Tom Fow, F Mike Fitzgerald, C Taylor Broekhuis, G Avery Merriex, G Shawn Hempsey, F Derek Brooks, F Zach Bohannon.
Utah 71, Air Force 54
UNLV 60, Air Force 50
Air Force 70, Wyoming 63
San Diego State 70, Air Force 48
vs. Texas Christian, Saturday, Feb. 6
vs. Colorado State, Tuesday, Feb. 9
at Brigham Young, Saturday, Feb. 13
at New Mexico, Saturday, Feb. 20
IN FOCUS: With its first conference victory in 22 months out of the way, Air Force began a rough five-game stretch Tuesday night at San Diego State. Air Force also plays at BYU and New Mexico during the stretch. In between are home games against TCU and Colorado State -- opportunities to notch another Mountain West win.
--After playing two straight outstanding games in which he had a combined nine assists against just two turnovers, freshman G Todd Fletcher played like a freshman at San Diego State. He had just two points and two assists against three turnovers and played just 17 minutes after playing 38 and 39, respectively, in the previous two contests.
--Junior G Evan Washington continued his recent stretch of quality play at San Diego State. In the Falcons' last five games, he's averaged 13.4 points on 24-of-37 shooting from the floor. He also averaged 4.2 rebounds and had 14 assists against just eight turnovers in the stretch.
--Junior F Tom Fow rebounded from a dreadful shooting performance against Wyoming (1-for-8 from the field, including 1-for-6 from 3-point range) against San Diego State. He hit 4-of-5 shots, including all three of his 3-pointers.
--Sophomore G Taylor Stewart (wrist) is expected to miss at least three more weeks.