After suffering a barrage of injuries, Air Force finally is getting healthy. And after a difficult stretch that included four straight games against Mountain West Conference heavyweights -- BYU, New Mexico, Utah and UNLV -- the schedule seems gets a little more favorable.
That should give Air Force some good chances to end a 22-game losing streak in Mountain West Conference regular-season games.
Senior forward/center Grant Parker has played two straight games after missing 10 straight because of a pelvic injury, and with him back in the lineup, Air Force is without just two key contributors, sophomore center Sammy Schafer (concussion) and sophomore guard/forward Taylor Stewart (broken wrist). That's not bad for a roster that includes seven players who have missed a combined 43 games this season.
"We're getting healthier," Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds said.
The return of Parker is especially important -- he averaged team highs of 17.1 points and 7.1 rebounds in the Falcons' first seven games.
After playing just 15 minutes in his first game back, Parker played 31 on Tuesday at UNLV. He should be rounding into form as the Falcons face a four-game stretch that includes games against the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-place teams in the league (Colorado State, TCU and Wyoming), all at home.
UNLV 60, AIR FORCE 50: The Falcons turned in their best effort in six Mountain West Conference games Tuesday night in Las Vegas, but it wasn't good enough to upend the Rebels. Air Force led by as many as nine points in the first half and took a 24-21 lead into halftime. But after a turnover the first time they had the ball in the second half, the Rebels scored on eight of 10 possessions to build a 44-34 lead and take control.
--There was a really good development during Air Force's 17-point loss to Utah.
Grant Parker played.
Air Force's top player had missed 10 consecutive contests with a serious groin injury before coming off the bench to play 15 minutes against the Utes.
Parker, who was averaging 17.1 points and 7.1 rebounds before the injury, tallied just four points and made only 1 of 5 shots. But the important thing was that he was playing.
Parker, a senior forward, hadn't played since Dec. 8 -- and the rust was evident.
"I think he played exactly like anyone would play who's been out that length of time -- a little hesitant," Falcons coach Jeff Reynolds said after the contest. "But it was good to see him out there and good to have him back."
The loss to Utah was the 21st consecutive conference loss for the Falcons, who had mismatch issues with the taller Utes.
"Their size really bothered us and I thought that we had a lot of open shots that didn't go down," Reynolds said. "We tried to take it to the rim and their size advantage was really bothersome to us in the second half."
--Air Force's 3-point shooting has been atrocious. The Falcons were just 3-of-24 (12.5 percent) against New Mexico and 3-of-14 (21.4 percent) against Utah. Air Force ranks next-to-last in the Mountain West in 3-point shooting at 30.4 percent.
--The Falcons have scored 54 or fewer points in all six Mountain West Conference contests and have topped that total just once (vs. Texas-Pan American) in eight games dating to late December.
ON THE SPOT: Air Force turned in one of its best defensive halves of the season in the first half against UNLV on Tuesday night. The Falcons forced six turnovers and limited the Rebels to 21 points. But after halftime, UNLV made 13 of 25 shots and scored 39 points en route to a 60-50 victory. Air Force senior Grant Parker said he doesn't think the Falcons completely have made a commitment to defend for 40 minutes and to "take somebody scoring on us personally. ... We did in the first half (against UNLV), and if we can do that, we can compete with anybody in this league."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We lost the game on the defensive end of the floor. Early on, we did a good job of defending the three, but in the second half, some of their threes came out of transition." -- Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds, after a 23-point loss to New Mexico in which the Lobos connected on 13 3-point baskets.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: Junior guard Evan Washington has had the best overall season of any Air Force player, and he re-emerged from a recent slump with 16 points against New Mexico. Washington (11.4 points per game) will be able to play a bit more loosely with top offensive player Grant Parker now back in the mix. Air Force has begun the same freefall that occurred in Mountain West Conference play last season, and the Falcons lack the firepower to stop it.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Tom Fow, C Mike McLain, G Michael Lyons, G Todd Fletcher, G Evan Washington. Key Subs -- F Mike Fitzgerald, C Taylor Broekhuis, G Avery Merriex, G Shawn Hempsey, F Derek Brooks, F Zach Bohannon.
Brigham Young 67, Air Force 49
New Mexico 73, Air Force 50
Utah 71, Air Force 54
UNLV 60, Air Force 50
vs. Wyoming, Saturday, Jan. 30
at San Diego State, Tuesday, Feb. 2
vs. Texas Christian, Saturday, Feb. 6
vs. Colorado State, Tuesday, Feb. 9
IN FOCUS: Air Force will have a good opportunity to end its conference victory drought when a Wyoming team missing leading scorer Afam Muojeke limps into town on Jan. 30. Road games at UNLV and San Diego State are unlikely to go well.
--Senior F/C Grant Parker played 31 minutes in his second game back in action, scoring 11 points (tied for the team high) and grabbing a game-high seven rebounds. Parker, who missed 10 games with a pelvic injury, played 15 minutes against Utah on Saturday, his first game since Dec. 8.
--Freshman F/C Taylor Broekhuis ended a season-long drought from behind the 3-point arc against UNLV. After missing both his 3s in the first half, Broekhuis was 0-for-17 on the season. But just more than five minutes into the second half, he drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key.
--Freshman G Todd Fletcher has entrenched himself as the Falcons' point guard. Fletcher played a career-high 38 minutes against UNLV and scored six points with four assists and just one turnover.