Air Force Wins Third-Ever MW Tournament Game, Eliminates Three-Time Defending Champion Lobos
By W.G. Ramirez
Special to TheMW.com
LAS VEGAS - Coming into the postseason, Air Force's men's basketball team had won just two conference tournament games. Perhaps that's why coach Dave Pilipovich's hotel bill was underneath his door Wednesday morning.
Well coach, call the front desk.
The ninth-seeded Falcons (14-16) eliminated three-time defending champion New Mexico with a 68-61 opening round win in the 2015 Mountain West Men's Basketball Championship, while improving to 3-15 all-time in MW Tournament play.
"We may not have rooms tonight," Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said jokingly after his team pulled off the upset. "We haven't won here much in the Mountain West Conference tournament. We talked about that. We talked about it from last year when we were here. In 28 years of coaching, I've never been around a group closer than them. We've grown here in February and early March."
Pilipovich's troops will look to carry that momentum and growth into Thursday's Noon quarterfinal, where they'll face top-seeded Boise State. The Falcons have never won a MW Tournament quarterfinal game, as they're 0-13 in this round.
The Falcons were led by Zach Kocur's 20 points, while Trevor Lyons chipped in with 10 and Hayden Graham had seven points and seven rebounds.
Prior to losing, the eighth-seeded Lobos (15-16) had won 11 of their past 12 inside the Thomas and Mack Center - including regular season and MW Tournament games. And though the Lobos have dominated the series, they've now lost two straight to the Falcons, who won the previous meeting, 53-49, at Air Force.
Tuesday's loss marked just the third time the Lobos fell to Air Force in 18 meetings.
New Mexico opened the game with the hot hand, racing out to an 11-3 lead over the first six minutes, highlighted by Sam Logwood's overhead slam dunk after he snatched a rebound at the 15:28 mark. Moments later his 3-pointer ignited the Lobos fans.
The Falcons managed to stop the bleeding momentarily, and quieted the crowd when reserve Matt Mooney buried a 3-pointer. New Mexico's Joe Furstinger answered with a field goal and later two free throws to give the Lobos a 15-6 lead midway through the half.
Air Force, which led the conference in field-goal percentage (47.1) and ranked third in 3-point field goal percentage (37.2) during the regular season, struggled to make their shots in the first half, hitting just 11 of 30 from the field and 3 of 12 from beyond the arc.
Nevertheless, the Falcons closed the gap to three, using a 13-7 run to get back in the game at the 3:52 mark. The teams traded baskets down the stretch, before the Lobos took a 32-28 halftime lead into the break.
The second half belonged to the Falcons, who opened with a 10-4 run in the first four minutes to take a 38-36 lead thanks to a pair of 3-pointers by Kocur. New Mexico quickly responded with a run of its own, outscoring the Falcons 9-2 over the next four minutes to take 45-40 lead.
"We knew we didn't make any shots in the first half, barely any, and we stuck around," Kocur said. "We knew if we came out and started shooting decently well, we would be there. They made some runs. We made some runs.
"Each game coaches and all the players tell everybody to keep shooting. We have confidence. I think that's the biggest thing, keep shooting."
An 18-8 run by the Falcons was highlighted by three 3-pointers, including two more by Kocur, as they took a 58-53 lead into the home stretch, with just 3:47 left in the game. The Lobos got as close two points, twice, but could never catch Air Force, which hit 4 of 6 free throws down the stretch to secure the win.
"I thought they made crucial shots when they needed to make them," New Mexico coach Craig Neal said. "Anytime you play a team like they are, you have 18 turnovers against a zone the whole game, you're not going to win."
The Falcons finished 24 of 50 (48.0) from the field after hitting 13 of 20 (65.0) in the second half, including 5 of 10 (50.0) from beyond the 3-point line. Conversely, the Lobos shot just 8 of 20 (40.0) in the second half, and 3 of 11 (27.3) from long-range. Air Force also outscored the Lobos in the paint, 28-18, and with fast break points, 7-0.
"We've been saying all year, this is a different team than last year," Graham said. "We're more mature, we're more confident. We believe in ourselves. We didn't do too well on the road this year, but in neutral sites we were 1 0."
Make that 2-0, while they now hope to secure their first-ever MW Tournament quarterfinal win.
Now about those hotel rooms.
Willie Ramirez is a Las Vegas-based freelance reporter and Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter: @AP_WG