The Tigers improved to 6-0 on the season by taking control of the game in the second half after only holding a one-point lead at halftime. However, following a quick spurt by the Falcons in the first four minutes of the second half to give the visitors their biggest lead of the basketball game at 35-31, the Tigers turned up the pressure defensively, which lead to a 16-0 run in the next six minutes.
The Tigers dominated the game in the frontcourt on both ends of the floor as Auburn out-rebounded Air Force 38-11 and outscored the Falcons in the paint 36-14. Marco Killingsworth, who had a game high 17 points, played a major role in Auburn's inside domination. The junior also contributed eight rebounds and two blocks.
Kyle Davis was also a force inside. The senior center blocked six shots, altered others, scored eight points and had 10 rebounds, one less than the entire Air Force roster.
"We knew coming into this game they were going to do a lot of backcuts," said Davis, noting that the Falcons play the deliberate Princeton-style of basketball. "The one thing I tried to do was back off of my guy and help everybody else get through the screens and backcuts. I tried to be in there and be a defensive presence this game. I knew it was going to be a lot more physical. They just kept bringing it in so I kept trying to alter the shots or block them."
Coach Cliff Ellis also liked what he saw from his big men on Sunday. "I thought our inside play was strong," Ellis explained.
Commenting on Auburn's second half spurt to rally from the four-point deficit, Ellis said, "We squeezed it. I thought Ian Young hit a couple of big threes that were important. We were extremely strong on the boards."
Young did the damage for the hot shooting Tigers, who hit 59.5 percent from the floor.He dropped in 16 points while making 6-8 field goals.
Brandon Robinson added eight points and six rebounds and point guard Chris Lollar had a career-high seven points plus four rebounds and three steals. LeMelle scored seven points, added four assists and a rebound.
"We got great bench play," Ellis said. "I thought we got inspired play from Kyle Davis, Ronny LeMelle and Chris Lollar. I thought they were big factors in this win."
Air Force, on the other hand, was dropping long-range bombs on Auburn Sunday as the Falcons knocked down 11 three-point shots that accounted for 33 of their 49 points. The Falcons fired up 30 treys and managed to knock down 36.7 percent of them.
"They are going to spread you out and wait for you to make a mistake and if you make one they are going to nail a three," Ellis said. "They scored 33 to our nine (on threes). That is a 24-point margin and that is a lot to make up."
The Falcons, who only made seven two-point baskets, were led by a pair of underclassmen. Freshman forward Jacob Burtschi and sophomore guard Antoine Hood each had 11 points. Senior guard A.J. Kuhle and junior guard Tim Keller each added eight points in the losing effort.
Ellis said that Sunday's game provided his team with the challenges they prepared for all week. "This game was a hard fought game," he said. "They made us earn it. It wasn't anything that we didn't expect. They worked that clock hard. They didn't lose sight of what they had to do. Even though we got up early, they didn't change what they did."
Early in the first half the Tigers jumped out to a quick 8-0 lead. However, Air Force got back into the flow of the game with three quick treys by Burtschi, Kuhle and sophomore center Nick Welch to bring the Falcons to within three at 12-9 with 15:11 remaining in the first half.
Ronny LeMelle is shown in action vs. Air Force.
The teams battled back and forth until 8:31 was remaining in the half when the Tigers took a 20-17 lead on a Killingsworth lay-up. However, those were the last points either team would put on the board for five and a half minutes. The Falcons broke the drought first with 3:01 remaining as Hood hit a trey to tie the game at 20 and then Burtschi hit another to take a 23-20 lead, their first of the game.
However, the Tigers' drought continued until 52 seconds in the half as Davis tipped in a Killingsworth miss. The seven and a half-minute scoreless stretch is the Tigers longest of the season. Then with 15 seconds remaining a jumper by Young sent the Tigers into the locker room up by one.
Davis noted that the going was certainly tough for the Tigers. "We had to get used to that sloughing defense because they switched everything," Davis said. "You just had to go out there and get used to it because we are going to play teams that are going to play like that."
Air Force, which falls to 2-2 this season, came out quickly in the second half with a 12-7 run in the first four minutes to lead 35-31. However, the Tigers took over at the 15:36 mark as LeMelle's lay-up started the six minute 16-0 run by the Tigers to give Auburn a 47-35 lead.
"I thought that up to the 15:40 mark in the second half, it was a very good ball game between two teams," Air Force coach Joe Scott explained. "Something happened at the 15:40 mark, and from that point, everything fell Auburn's way. They stepped up their defense and took us out of our style of playing. We got away from everything that makes us Air Force."
With 8:38 remaining freshman guard Matt McCraw hit a three-pointer to bring Air Force within eight at 49-41. However, that is as close as the Falcons would get as the Tigers stretched their lead over the final eight minutes with solid shooting and a tough fullcourt press defense to take the 19-point victory.
Ellis explained that defense was a big key in the Tigers' victory. "Our press was extremely effective when we got the lead," Ellis said. "When you get a lead against Air Force, it changes it because they are not wanting to put it up quickly. And then when they have to rush it is not the way they want to play."
Young noted the victory was they type of game that will help the Tigers down the road. "This is the most physical game since I have been here," he said. "They were up on us hard pressuring us. When we go to practice we will work on that and be alright. It was real physical out there."
The Tigers return to action Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at the Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. Auburn will face Montana, which is a member of the Big Sky Conference.
In the first half of the doubleheader, the Auburn women's team coasted to an 82-32 victory over Buffalo (1-3). Mandisa Stevenson led the Tigers with 16 points and eight rebounds as Auburn improved its record to 6-2. Louise Emeagi added 14 points, six rebounds and four steals as all 11 Auburn players scored.