Top-seeded Air Force (22-6) entered the Top 25 this week for the first time in school history after winning its first conference title and setting a school record for wins. The Falcons still have a good shot at going to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1962, but will have to wait to end a postseason losing streak that is now 12 games.
Air Force hasn't won a conference tournament game since 1990, when it was in the Western Athletic Conference, and is 0-5 in the Mountain West tournament.
Colorado State (13-15) entered the tournament as the eighth seed after losing seven of its final eight games, but shot 51 percent to get in position for another improbable postseason run. Ronnie Clark had 14 points and Dwight Boatner added 11 for the Rams, last year's Mountain West tournament champion as the sixth seed. Colorado State will face the winner of UNLV-New Mexico in Friday's semifinals.
Colorado State shot 52 percent and ended the first half with a five-point lead. The Rams kept it going in the second half, shooting 6-for-7 during its opening 18-3 run.
Matt Nelson put Colorado State up 17 with two free throws after Air Force coach Joe Scott was called for a technical foul, and Jon Rakiecki made it 43-23 at 13:40 with a 3-pointer from the corner.
Air Force's Tim Keller hit the first basket of the second half from the post to cut Colorado State's lead to 25-22, but it was six minutes before the Falcons mad another field goal.
Air Force got its portion of the crowd excited with a 7-0 run that cut Colorado State's lead to 10, then Antoine Hood made it 50-42 with a 3-pointer with just over three minutes left. The Falcons got it down to six with just under two minutes left, but Boatner and Rakiecki went 10-for-10 on free throws to seal the win.
Keller led Air Force with 12 points. Air Force had swept the season series against Colorado State for the first time since 1991, but the Rams were without the 7-foot Nelson both times. He was back, although he wasn't much of a factor. Nelson did block Keller's drive on Air Force's fourth shot, but wasn't able to challenge many other shots because he had to move out on Air Force center Nick Welch, a 45 percent 3-point shooter. Colorado State also tried too hard to get Nelson the ball on offense, with four of its nine first-half turnovers coming from forcing the ball into the post. Nelson finished with 10 points. Neither team could get much going early against strong defensive pressure. The score was stuck at 10-7 for four minutes midway through the half and Air Force went nearly six minutes without a field goal until A.J. Kuhle hit a running left-handed hook in the lane. Colorado State still managed to hit 12 of 23 shots in the half and went on a 7-0 run late to take a 25-20 lead. Air Force was just 8-for-21 with eight turnovers.