Draelon Burns, who scored 18 points and had five 3-pointers, rimmed out a 3-pointer from the right corner at the buzzer after Burtschi missed a free throw following his layup, and the usually subdued crowd at Clune Arena stormed the court, their Falcons headed to the NIT Final Four and "New York, New York" playing over the loud speakers.
The Falcons (26-8), top seeded in the West, play South Region top seed Clemson in the semifinals on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Matt McCraw also scored 13 points for the Falcons, who nearly saw their 33-game home winning streak against non-conference opponents snapped.
Tim Anderson, who was in foul trouble after picking up his third one late in the first half, scored on a layup with 3 1/2 minutes left to give Air Force a 47-46 lead, its first since the opening minutes of the second half. The lead changed three more times, with Wilson Chandler putting DePaul up 51-50 with a 3-pointer with just under two minutes left.
Dan Nwaelele's basket was called off when he was whistled for a charge with 1:14 left, stunning the Falcons and their fans who had thought he was on his way to the foul line for a three-point play.
After a timeout, Anderson knocked the inbounds pass off inbounder Jabari Currie, giving the Falcons the ball under their basket. But Nwaelele was whistled again away from the ball with 47 seconds left.
The Blue Demons (20-14) again gave the ball back, this time when Sammy Mejia turned it over after running into Anderson with 16 seconds remaining.
Burtschi scored with 7.7 seconds left and was fouled by Chandler. After a timeout, Burtschi missed his free throw and DePaul got the rebound.
With a bigger, more physical lineup, frequent substitutions to deal with the altitude and a deft shooting touch from outside, the Blue Demons weathered an early 16-2 Air Force run that began with back-to-back uncontested layups by Burtschi to trail just 29-26 at the half thanks to 12 first-half points by Burns.
Burns started the second half with a 3 that sparked a 9-2 Blue Demons run that put DePaul ahead 35-31. His fifth 3-pointer, which came after he banged his head hard on the floor while committing a foul, made it 38-34, and Chandler followed with another 3-pointer to give DePaul its biggest lead at 41-34.
But Burns didn't score again.
The Falcons re-energized their crowd by scoring seven straight points to set up the frenetic final minutes.
The Falcons, whose NCAA bubble burst with four straight losses to end the season, celebrated their first trip to the NIT by routing Austin Peay and Georgia at Clune Arena, but they had a much harder time putting away the Blue Devils, who were seeking their fifth trip to the tournament's final four.
DePaul won the NIT crown in 1945, when it was more prestigious than the NCAA tournament. The Blue Demons also were runners-up in '44 and '83, their last trip to NIT semifinals.
The Blue Demons had won all three of their games against the academy, including a 69-63 win in the 1960 NCAA tournament. DePaul's last game against a service academy was a 67-64 loss to Navy in 1985.
Official Box Score
DePaul Drops Heartbreaker at Air Force
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