SAN DIEGO - As Air Force guard Matt McCraw and forward Jacob Burtschi left the Cox Arena floor Thursday night, tears beginning to sting their eyes, they each wrapped coach Jeff Bzdelik in a final hug of recognition for a season moments away from ending.
Air Force had a long, joyous four-month journey to the NCAA Tournament, but this moment was the price the Falcons ultimately had to pay. Air Force ran into a huge roadblock named Illinois that simply had too many players and too many points. And though Air Force’s 78-69 loss was hardly a disgrace, just getting here didn’t seem like quite enough. “We did our best,” Burtschi said, “and just came up short.” Though Air Force did almost everything it could to set the stage for an upset, hitting 13 of 27 from 3-point range and shutting down star seniors Dee Brown and James Augustine, the Falcons didn’t really come that close. Illinois reserves Jamar Smith and Warren Carter scored 20 and 12 points, respectively, killing any kind of run Air Force tried to make. Despite a sharp effort offensively, the Falcons trailed by 15 points with fewer than nine minutes left and did all they could to keep the game competitive. “We simply couldn’t get enough stops,” Bzdelik said. “They have a lot of weapons. We did our best to shut down Brown and (Rich) McBride and keep Augustine limited, but simply put, they had some firepower off the bench that hurt us.” The Illinois bench produced 32 points. The Air Force bench had five. Though Air Force’s 24-7 season — despite a third coach in three years and the loss of injured center Nick Welch — was an achievement, an upset against the No. 4 seeded Illini would have stood as the greatest basketball achievement in the school’s 50 years. It seemed the Falcons would get their chance with 13:10 remaining when junior forward Dan Nwaelele made consecutive 3-pointers to bring the Falcons within 50-47 after they’d trailed by as many as 13 late in the first half. But Carter responded with a tough jumper in the lane, Augustine scored on a 15-footer and Smith’s 3-pointer pushed the Illinois lead back to 57-47. Smith made 6 of 9 from the 3-point line, each one a huge momentum-stopper for Air Force. “After we’d hit a shot, they’d hit a shot,” Nwaelele said. “If we hit a two, they’d come down and hit a 3. That never works if you’re trying to come back. “There’s a reason why they were the (national) runner-up last year. They’re a good team. They’ll probably go far.” Though Air Force shot 51.2 percent and had four players score in double figures, Illinois played with the kind of focus coach Bruce Weber expected considering his team was unhappy about its No. 4 seed and placement in San Diego. Both teams could have been distracted by the false bomb scare that delayed the start. Illinois outrebounded Air Force 28-15, committed just 11 turnovers and made shots every time the Falcons threatened. The Illini hit 29 of 50 from the field. Air Force’s last gasp came when Hood closed the gap to 68-59 with 4:06 left, but 19 seconds later Smith’s 3-pointer dashed the Falcons’ hopes. “Their guys just stepped up and hit big shots,” Burtschi said. “We did our best to shut down their power but their other guys stepped up and that’s what great teams do.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0258 or email@example.com BENCHMARK The Illinois bench outscored Air Force’s 32-5 on Thursday — 32-3 if you don’t count Marc Holum’s meaningless layup with 13 seconds left. Jamar Smith and Warren Carter scored all of the Illini’s bench points. The Falcons’ top substitutes were Andrew Henke and Tim Anderson, who combined for three points in 29 minutes. A comparison of each team’s bench production: