Saturday marked a grim Mountain West Conference matchup at the Event Center, as the two worst teams in the conference competed to avoid the dreaded 11th place spot. San Jose State, who entered with a 1-8 conference record, hosted Air Force (1-7 MW). Ultimately, San Jose State distanced itself far from the cellar, with a 75-54 win to end a four-game losing streak and move up to 7-15 (2-8 MW).
Four players scored in double figures for the Spartans. Jaycee Hillsman led with 13 points and made two rebounds and five assists. Brandon Clarke had 12 points and eight rebounds, in addition to five blocks and two steals. Jalen James and Cody Schwartz each scored 11 points, with James making one rebound and Schwartz eight rebounds. For the Falcons, only two players scored in double figures. Frank Toohey came off the bench to score 17 points and grab seven rebounds. Zach Kocur was the only Air Force starter in double figures, with 13 points and three rebounds.
Frank Rogers scored San Jose State’s first points with a three-pointer in transition, off a missed layup by Air Force’s Zach Moer. Four and a half minutes, three shots bouncing off the rim, and two turnovers later, Air Force let San Jose State run away to a 12-0 lead off four three-pointers, by Rogers, Hillsman (twice), and James. Zach Kocur hit a three-pointer for Air Force’s first points of the game, only for Schwartz to respond with a three of his own to put San Jose State up 15-3. With 9:28 left, San Jose State had a 26-5 lead.
Air Force would not give in. A 21-point lead for San Jose State would shrink to 11 in the next six minutes, as San Jose State appeared to imitate Air Force’s poor play with off-target shots, defensive gaps, and throwing balls out of bounds. With 3:48 left before halftime, reserve guard Jacob Van hit a three-pointer to get Air Force within 31-20. By then, San Jose State had gone nearly four minutes without a field goal.
Van’s basket appeared to spark the San Jose State offense, as Hillsman rebounded a missed three by Princeton Onwas for a putback layup. The two teams exchanged scores, but San Jose State would not allow Air Force to cut its deficit to single digits. In the final 90 seconds, a three by Jalen James and free throw by Gary Williams, Jr., combined with three missed Air Force layups, put San Jose State up 39-24 at halftime.
San Jose State continued controlling the pace in the second half, with an efficient field goal percentage of 47.8%. Hillsman began that half with a blind-side block of Moer then made a wide open three from the right corner to extend the lead to 42-24. With 12:28 left in regulation, San Jose State got its largest lead at 51-29 off two free throws by Rogers. Nearly seven minutes later, Toohey hit a three to shrink San Jose State’s lead to 61-47. That bucket would not be the prequel to a comeback, as San Jose State continued to make scores and create stops to climb back up to a 20-point lead within minutes.
James, who missed six games in January due to an ankle injury, felt satisfied with his performance.
“I just wanted to come out today and basically do whatever I needed to do for my team and come out with a victory, getting the ball ahead to my teammates, knocking down the open shots, just running the team, being a point guard,” said James.
Hillsman praised his coaches for preparing the team defensively against Air Force.
“They stressed to us every day in practice to eye in on a three, especially when it’s a known shooter.”
Coach Dave Wojcik pointed to San Jose State’s quality ball handling as contributing to the 12-0 run to begin the game and controlling the pace.
“It wasn’t four shots," Wojcik said. "We shared the ball, went inside, kicked it out, and got open looks. It was nice to see Jaycee [Hillsman] making some shots, because he’s been struggling...He gave us more confidence.”