DENVER - The nemeses are now very real, as unexplainable as they are frustrating. Air Force still can’t win in the conference tournament. It still can’t run its offense effectively against Wyoming.
And on Thursday that combination of horrors might have cost the Falcons a shot at the NCAA Tournament. With so much on the line, No.2 seed Air Force picked the worst possible time for its flattest and most confounding performance of the season, falling 57-55 to No. 7 seed Wyoming in the Mountain West Conference quarterfinals. Now 0-7 in this event, the Falcons must sit, wait and hope the NCAA Tournament selection committee is in a patriotic mood this weekend and judges them on their 24-6 overall record, not one bad night at the Pepsi Center. “Three years in a row we’ve come up here and had great opportunities and we just never took advantage of them,” junior forward Jacob Burtschi said. “We’ve got to put this behind us and sit and wait to see what happens on Sunday. It shouldn’t be what a conference tournament does to make or break you. It should be what you do all year. Hopefully the committee will take a look at that.” Air Force can look only at itself for digging a 16-point second-half hole it nearly climbed out of before Wyoming sealed the game with clutch free-throw shooting. The Cowboys, who lost 9 of 10 games entering the tournament, made 22 of 23 from the line, far above their season average of 65 percent. Air Force, which led the league at 74.8 percent, made just 14 of 21, including two missed front ends of 1-and-1 situations in the second half. But the problems ran far deeper, as the Falcons made 5 of 20 from the 3-point line and went without a field goal for the final eight minutes of the first half and didn’t score the first 4:52 of the second. Clearly bothered by Wyoming center Justin Williams, the league’s leading shot-blocker, the Falcons made uncharacteristically poor decisions nearly every time they got the ball close to the paint. It was much the same story Jan.11 when Wyoming’s defense frustrated Air Force in the Cowboys’ 55-50 victory. “I never thought we were in a good rhythm offensively all night,” coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “It wasn’t right. It wasn’t what we had been doing for whatever reason. “We were flat. Why? I don't know. Justin Williams causes a lot of problems, and in particular for us. We get to the rim and it bothers us. It really does. We’re not sure what we should do.” The only Air Force player who provided energy was sophomore guard Tim Anderson, who created four points in seven seconds with a layup and a steal in the backcourt for another easy bucket that cut the deficit to 34-25 with 13:30 remaining. Matt McCraw made a 3-pointer and drew a foul with 6:21 remaining, cutting the deficit to eight. After a Wyoming turnover, Air Force scored another four points in a matter of seconds on an Antoine Hood layup and another Anderson steal in the backcourt for an easy basket. Down 44-41, Air Force had a chance to tie, but Burtschi's 3-point attempt with 3:13 left bounced out after going down halfway. Wyoming guard Steve Leven, who scored 20 points, then denied Air Force any opportunity to come back by making 5 of 6 from the line. “We haven’t fared well obviously in the last couple years here, and you just can’t come out flat,” Hood said. “It’s probably just a mental thing.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0258 or firstname.lastname@example.org