Air Force came into MWC play being picked last in the pre-conference rankings and no one expecting much from the Falcons. Well they showed this week that they are more than just the cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy.
The Falcons opened up MWC play with a home matchup versus Nevada and came away with the 78-65 win at Clune Arena.
A tale of two halves for the Falcons last night and that is good! Typically, a statement comparing the two halves of play has a tendency to be good to bad. But versus Nevada it was just the opposite. Air Force came into the game scoring quickly but, hampered by a very good and aggressive Nevada full court press and trap defense, quickly gave the lead away and found themselves down by 9 points. Air Force had played well against #9 Florida's full court press so what was happening? Give credit to Nevada for playing aggressive and for Air Force committing 10 turnovers during that first half. But Air Force did not give up as had happened often during the previous four seasons, they made a run and closed it to a 3 point game on Todd Fletchers 3-point shot ending the half. Whew….what would the second half bring?
Fast forward through intermission and Air Force retook the court leaving its early jitters behind, found their offense in the form of Mike Fitzgerald, Todd Fletcher and Taylor Broekhuis, took care of the ball (on 4 turnovers in the second half) and played some lock down defense. Postgame comments from Coach P and staff said the jitters of opening MWC play at home after the extended break away from Clune Arena (had not played there since the 8th of December) maybe got into the players heads too much. They pressed themselves early and, although credit goes to Nevada's press, had unforced turnovers early trying to make too much happen too quick. Those worries were left in the locker room after the half.
Biggest kudos of the night goes to Mike Fitzgerald who lived up to what we knew he could do and what we have been waiting for. The irony is that Mike's parents make each and every game, but last night might be the ‘only' game they miss this season. And it would have been a good one to see. Mike was an astounding career high 30 pts on 9-10 shooting making 4-5 3pts shots, 9-9 FT's, 8 rebounds, 3 steals and 1 TO in 32 minutes of play.
Tears, frustration and knowledge that they played a very good game in a hostile environment but walked away with a 'L' in the loss column were all in the hearts of the Falcons as they walked off the court in the Thomas&Mack Center in Las Vegas. Air Force, a 15-point underdog to the home team UNLV Rebels, almost shocked the MWC and the nation but could not lock the screen door to end the game, losing in OT 71-76.
Air Force vs UNLV was a game that the Falcons came into knowing they needed their 'A' game to be able to compete in. UNLV has two players that are most likely NBA draft choices this spring with Bennett being a 'one and done' and Moser going into the draft after deciding to stay one more year. A very good plan by the staff on how to defend UNLV. AF elected to stay in their matchup zone the majority of the game, playing tough inside knowing the UNLV bigs will try to live in the lane and to force UNLV to win from the outside. Not only did it reap benefits, it wore down the big men especially freshman Anthony Bennett. The future NBA player indeed did have an impact with 22 points and 16 rebounds but by the end of the game was gasping for breath and even fouled one just holding on to a Falcon, just tuckered out. Joe Scott once said that one man cannot defeat a team and last night the Falcons almost made that a truth. As Bennett faltered or went out of the game the Falcon held UNLV scoreless for almost 7 minutes in the second half. Pesky defense almost won this game. Kudos to UNLV for never quitting even as the Falcons were battling for the win.
Game leaders were Mike and Mike. Mike Fitzgerald had his second scoring game in a row and was the official POG with 22pts on 5-10/3-5 3pt, 4 rebounds, 1 assist in 36 minutes. His play on both ends of the court to including taking several hard charges was exceptional. Mike Lyons played like a man possessed with 19pts on 7-20/2-8 3pt 7 rebounds and 1 assist in 43 (YES) minutes. I hope he is rested back up for the CSU game. Both had game winning shots that rimmed out, Fitz in the end of regulation and Mike at the end of OT. DeLovell Earls had one of his best games as a Falcon with two early 3's and 10 pts 4-7/2-2, 4 rebounds and 2 steals. Todd Fletcher was in foul trouble for most of the game but contributed 8 assists in only 30 minutes of play. I thought the play of young Tre' Coggins gets better each week. In substitution for Todd he played 15 minutes of aggressive defense and had 2 assists and 2 TO'.
Proud of the Falcons but it does not get any easier. Next up we head up the road to Ft. Collins to play 13-3 CSU who also lost in OT yesterday on the road to SDSU 72-79. How about this for numbers and points to ponder: Down 18 pts at the half, CSU outscored SDSU 40-22 in the second half to take it into OT. They out rebounded SDSU in the loss (ready?) 51-34. This will be a battle as the Falcons head up north on I-25 to play the Rams.
Shout out to the Air Force Women's basketball team who beat UNLV at Clune Arena yesterday 81-69 in the conference home opener for the lady's. The full summary and box score can be found at the official AF website: Box Score. Three Falcons recorded double-doubles as the Air Force women's basketball team earned an 81-69 victory over UNLV Saturday afternoon in Clune Arena.