AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP)—Nick Welch shrugged his shoulders and tried to come up with a reasonable answer.
San Diego State was bigger and more athletic than No. 13 Air Force and yet the Falcons held off the Aztecs for a 56-51 win Saturday.
“They’ve got some guys who are potential NBA players,” Welch said after the Falcons’ 26th straight win at home. “They can take over at any minute.”
Welch glanced down at the stat sheet, hoping inspiration would come from the numbers. An answer finally hit him.
“I think that five beats one every single time,” he said. “We came out there and played as a team. A lot of time they would try to take over the game individually. Our team play overcame that.”
Jacob Burtschi scored 23 points and Dan Nwaelele finished with 11 points, including a shot that gave Air Force back a lead with 45 seconds remaining that it wouldn’t lose again.
Brandon Heath’s desperation 3-pointer with 7.1 seconds left was off the mark and Burtschi grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He hit two free throws to put the game away.
In the hallway after the contest, Heath was still thinking about the shot.
“It felt good, but it came up short,” Heath said. “I want that shot again.”
The Falcons (18-2, 5-1 Mountain West Conference) have now won 50 of their last 51 at Clune Arena. The 26 straight home wins is tied for the second-longest active streak in the country with Brigham Young. Gonzaga has won 47 straight at home.
San Diego State (13-6, 2-3) was led in scoring by Heath and Jerome Habel, who each had 15 points.
Heath became the school’s all-time steals leader with three thefts against Air Force, passing Anthony Watson (1983-86). He now has 193 career steals. Heath passed Michael Cage as the San Diego State’s all-time leading scorer on Jan. 3.
The Falcons led by as many as five points with 3:35 remaining, but couldn’t close out San Diego State. The Aztecs took a 51-50 on Habel’s layup, but Nwaelele’s fadeaway restored Air Force’s lead for good.
“It was a pretty difficult shot,” Nwaelele admitted. “I had a lot of concentration and a lot of focus. Good thing it went in.”
The Aztecs didn’t take their first lead of the game until a long 3-pointer by Heath with 5:51 remaining. They led for a total of 43 seconds in the game.
“We played well enough to win, but they just wouldn’t let us,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said.
The Falcons know they can’t take so much as a possession off because coach Jeff Bzdelik is always watching. Missing a shot is one thing, not playing aggressive defense is inexcusable.
“We weren’t going to tolerate any defensive mistakes,” Bzdelik said. “If you did you were coming out because defense is strictly just a concentrated, all-out effort at all times.”
Air Force’s intense defense was on display early. San Diego State took nearly 8 minutes to hit its first basket. The Aztecs missed eight straight attempts and turned the ball over three times as they spotted Air Force an early 8-0 lead.
“For the most part our defense was solid,” said Bzdelik, whose team played in front of 6,223 fans, the sixth-largest crowd in Clune Arena history.
The Falcons had their school-record tying 13-game win streak snapped by a 85-79 loss at Utah last Tuesday night.
However, the loss may have been the best thing for them.
“This was a wake-up call,” Burtschi said. “We responded well to that Utah loss.”
San Diego State is now 1-41 in road games against nationally ranked teams.
Longtime Air Force football coach Fisher DeBerry was honored at halftime and given a two-minute standing ovation by the capacity crowd. DeBerry, who was sitting behind the Falcons bench, retired on Dec. 15 after 23 years at the Air Force Academy.
After the game, Bzdelik invited DeBerry onto the court to take part in the singing of the alma mater.
“I have so much respect and admiration for him,” Bzdelik said. “I wanted him to join us out there.”