Banish any thought that this was going to be easy. For Air Force, easy doesn’t enter the equation, not when it comes to making the NCAA Tournament. For the Falcons, winning hasn’t been easy or pretty for a while.
But the bottom line again Wednesday was a 51-46 win over New Mexico that kept Air Force’s NCAA hopes alive and gave the Falcons their 22nd victory, equaling their school record of two seasons ago. “Sometimes games late in the season like this aren’t going to be pretty,” Falcons coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “Everybody’s desperate right now, everybody’s playing as hard as they can, as well as they can and you combine that with the scouting and everybody knows personnel and tendencies and schemes . . . you have to expect a battle.” If you’re looking for style points, you should have come to Clune Arena earlier this season, when the Falcons were blowing out teams such as BYU and Utah in performances that seemed effortless. But Wednesday was suffocating. It was ugly. It was tense from the beginning. And it was exactly how it’s going to be from now until the 65-team NCAA field is selected March 12. With a week to prepare, New Mexico limited the Falcons’ ability to get high-percentage shots. The Lobos forced turnovers and grabbed offensive rebounds in the first half. Then they hit clutch shots in the second half, including Kellen Walter’s 3-pointer with 1:01 remaining that cut Air Force’s lead to 46-44. But the Falcons did a little bit more, pleasing the 4,759 in attendance with their fourth straight win, improving to 22-5 overall, 10-4 in the Mountain West Conference. Air Force is one game behind league leader San Diego State, which dropped to 11-3 after a loss Wednesday to Brigham Young. BYU and UNLV, which visits Clune Arena on Saturday, are right behind Air Force at 9-4. New Mexico dropped to 16-10, 7-6 after coming to Clune on a four-game winning streak. “Our conference isn’t getting a lot of love out there from the media, but no matter where you’re playing at, if you’re playing on the road, at home, teams are bringing it,” Air Force guard Antoine Hood said after scoring a teamhigh 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting. “Everyone’s fighting for their lives right now. Everybody’s going to bring their A game every night. We’ve got to be full throttle.” New Mexico at times made Air Force appear to be stuck in neutral. The Falcons scored two points the first 6:54, led 19-18 at halftime and couldn’t get separation after that, with the Lobos making 3-pointers both times Air Force pushed its lead to seven in the second half. The Falcons shot 42.1 percent, they missed some crucial layups and free throws in the second half (11 of 17) and led just 41-39 late. But after forward Jacob Burtschi badly missed a 3-pointer, New Mexico forward David Chiotti lost the rebound out of bounds with 2:25 left. Junior Dan Nwaelele then swished a 3-pointer on a set play with 2:17 remaining to push the lead back to five. Leading 47-44 with 33 seconds left, guard Matt McCraw missed a free throw, but again Chiotti lost the rebound out of bounds to help Air Force seal the victory. Air Force’s defense limited New Mexico to 19 of 51 from the field, including 6 of 24 from the 3-point line. “I was very proud of our team because it wasn’t our best effort offensively in terms of the execution,” Bzdelik said. “We found a way.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0258 or firstname.lastname@example.org NEXT UNLV (15-10, 9-4 Mountain West Conference) at Air Force (22-5, 10-4), 4:05 p.m. Saturday, 740/560 AM