Air Force continues its pursuit of the Mountain West Conference title Tuesday night when it tries to snap UNLV’s 12-game home winning streak.
The 14th-ranked Falcons (23-4, 10-3) were joined in the rankings this week with the team it is chasing in the standings, No. 21 Brigham Young. The Cougars, who are 10-2 in the conference, will be the visitors in Air Force’s regular-season finale on Feb. 27.
UNLV (22-6, 9-4) also has hopes of winning the title and can pull into a tie with Air Force for second place. The Rebels are also strong contenders for an NCAA at-large berth and a victory over the Falcons is crucial to those hopes.
Both of these teams entered on 10-game winning streaks in their first meeting on Jan. 6, and Air Force held on for a 56-50 victory. The Falcons’ defense proved to be the difference as the Rebels made a season-low one 3-pointer on 18 attempts and shot 35.7 percent overall for their lowest point total of the season.
“We’ve got to shoot better,” UNLV coach Lon Kruger said. “Air Force is a very good defensive team, but we weren’t able to convert the opportunities that we were given. Obviously, the missed 3s hurt us. We got some good shots and some good plays from the post.”
A trio of Falcons—Dan Nwaelele, Nick Welch and Matt McCraw—each scored 13 points as they won their third straight in the series.
The streak includes a 52-50 win last season in Las Vegas that marked Air Force’s first win in 10 tries at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Falcons rallied from an 11-point deficit in the first half, closed the game on a 14-5 run and survived when Wendell White’s putback was ruled to have come after the buzzer.
Air Force won its third straight Saturday, 67-58 over Colorado State. The smaller Falcons had trouble defending Rams 7-footer Jason Smith, who had 22 points and 10 rebounds, but placed four players in double figures.
“Jason Smith, he’s going to get his,” Falcons forward Jacob Burtschi said. “I mean, it’s not like we said we’re going to go out there and shut him down, zero points and all that. He’s a great player. He’s tough to shut down, especially with our (small) size. I mean, he had a great game but we didn’t let anybody else have an all-star game.
“And that’s what it comes down to, one player can’t beat five.”
The Falcons remain the top 3-point shooting team in the conference at 42.4 percent and are also the best at defending the shot, holding opponents to 31.0 percent. Nwaelele made five 3-pointers Saturday and leads Air Force at 50.0 percent shooting from beyond the arc (61-for-122).
The Rebels won for the third time in four games Saturday, 70-57 at Utah. Wink Adams had 17 points and 10 rebounds for UNLV, which committed a season-low four turnovers.
“Wink was great,” Kruger said. “He drove well, rebounded well and shot well today.”
UNLV also overcame a poor effort by White, who had a season-low two points on 1-for-12 shooting. The senior guard averaged 17.3 points over his previous 15 games.