By far the most intense and entertaining game the Falcons have played since the start of the conference schedule – and maybe the whole season.
Said Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds: “It was a heavyweight bout. We took their shots and punched right back and just missed some execution down the stretch. “
Air Force should be proud of the performance it gave Tuesday night in Las Vegas.
Facing a team that has been extremely difficult to beat on its home court, the Falcons embraced the hostile environment and gave UNLV everything it could handle. Air Force played as well as it has all year, given the opponent and the circumstances, and trailed by just four until a desperation 3-pointer doomed them with less than a minute to play.
But this is – to channel Colorado football coach Dan Hawkins – Division I basketball. It ain’t intramurals. So no matter how well Air Force played or how hard it tried, the score doesn’t change: UNLV 58, Air Force 51.
That’s the harsh reality for this team. Anyone who watched Air Force bumble through a loss to Northern Illinois in late November or get blown out at Utah in early January knows the team has improved dramatically.
But they need something to show for it. They need a marquee victory - as opposed to the moral ones they’ve stockpiled in recent weeks – to give them positive reinforcement.
This next stretch, which includes winnable games at home against Wyoming (Saturday) and New Mexico (next week) before a road game at Colorado State, could provide the opportunity for that reinforcement.
-Air Force slipped into seventh place in the conference with Tuesday night’s loss. If the regular season ended today, that would put the Falcons in a Mountain West Conference quarterfinal game against UNLV.
The Falcons are 1-1 against UNLV and they seem to give the Rebels fits. But I think Air Force would have a better chance to post its first Mountain West Conference Tournament victory if it faced San Diego State, Utah or New Mexico in the first round and the court truly was neutral. That probably means Air Force will have to creep back into fifth or sixth place by the end of the regular season.
-Reynolds told me at the morning shootaround Tuesday that Derek Brooks had been playing well in practice and had earned playing time. Sure enough, with 16:29 left in the first half, Brooks entered the game. He scored only two points but played 11 minutes and, given the opponent and the environment, acquitted himself very well. It will be interesting to see what kind of impact he makes the rest of the year.
-Andrew Henke began the season hot, scoring in double figures in seven of the Falcons’ first eight games. He was up and down from there and had scored in double figures only once in conference play before last Saturday’s game against Utah, when he posted 11.
Tuesday against the Rebels, however, he played as good a game as he’s played all year – a team-high 15 points, including four 3-pointers, six boards and three assists with no turnovers.
Those numbers – specifically the points and 3s – were even more impressive if you saw the kind of defense that UNLV was playing on Henke. The Rebels’ Curtis Terry was in Henke’s face trying to deny him the ball even when Henke was several feet behind the 3-point line. And Terry wouldn’t leave Henke to help out teammates.
Henke has gotten that kind of treatment for most of the conference season and that likely won’t change. But he’s done a good job of late of taking advantage of his limited opportunities and also not forcing too many shots.
-Tim Anderson also had no turnovers despite the amount of ball-handling he did in the face of aggressive, hands-on pressure from the Rebels, specifically Wink Adams.
Anderson has emerged as a scorer this year, and he always has been known as a good defender. But don’t overlook his court vision and passing. He has a knack for the backdoor pass, and that was never more evident than early in the second half when he threaded a bounce pass through traffic to Eric Kenzik for a layin.
-Not sure how it looked on TV, but if you thought you saw a cloud of smoke in the arena in the first half, it wasn’t your television playing tricks on you. The cloud was the remnants of the fireworks display in the UNLV pre-game introductions.