FORT WORTH, Texas - For a team that considers itself an NCAA Tournament contender, there are two kinds of games at this point in the season: opportunities to strengthen your case for a bid or potential disasters.
For Air Force, Wednesday’s game at Texas Christian University fell decidedly into the latter category — which is why there was plenty of joy and relief after the Falcons escaped Daniel-Meyer Coliseum with a 63-45 victory that pushed them to the 20-win mark for the second time in school history. “Every win is very significant,” Falcons coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “They’re a team that’s struggling with some confidence, but we knew they were going to play very hard and with great pride.” Winning Wednesday was crucial for one obvious reason. A loss to TCU, which fell to 5-20 overall and 1-10 in the Mountain West, would have virtually eliminated the Falcons from the league title race and crushed their argument for an NCAA at-large bid. Instead, the Falcons head into Saturday’s game at Utah 20-5 overall and, at 8-4 in the league, still within reach of MWC leader San Diego State. The Aztecs (9-2 MWC) play at UNLV (7-3) tonight. “Our team is coming together right now. Perfect timing,” said senior guard Antoine Hood, whose 23 points tied a season high. If the Falcons are beginning to play their best basketball, TCU at times made it difficult to see in front of a quiet gathering that didn’t measure up to the announced crowd of 3,555. TCU’s aggressive, overplaying defense forced the Falcons into an unusually high 16 turnovers but it also left the Horned Frogs exposed inside as Air Force made 26 of 52 field goals and outscored TCU 42-16 in the paint. Air Force scored 25 points off 19 TCU turnovers and won the rebounding battle 31-25. “They’re very quick, but they left themselves out to dry a lot trying to get those steals,” said junior forward Jacob Burtschi, who scored 16 points and added seven rebounds. “We were running our offense to perfection most of the time.” The Falcons weren’t running it well at all, however, during a stretch of the second half that whittled a 20-point lead to 51-38 with 6:42 left. But after a timeout to get reorganized, the Falcons scored the next eight points. That was the same kind of spurt Air Force used in the first half to turn a 14-12 lead to 27-13 in a span of 4:01. It helps, of course, that TCU continued its shooting struggles, making 6 of 22 field goals as Air Force took an 18-point lead into halftime. As the Horned Frogs began missing the basket in the first half, Hood began attacking it and made 9 of 16 field goals to go along with five rebounds and four steals. Hood also made big shots from the perimeter, including a 3-pointer with 2:07 left in the first half that gave the Falcons a 33-17 lead. “Antoine if he wanted could start for any team in this conference,” TCU coach Neil Dougherty said. “He is the most complete guard in the league.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0258 or firstname.lastname@example.org NEXT Air Force (20-5, 8-4 MWC) at Utah (12-11, 5-7 MWC), 7 p.m. Saturday, 740/560 AM