AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP)—Fundamentals over flash.
That’s the formula that’s working for the No. 16 Air Force Falcons, who are showing you don’t need any superstars who can jump out of the gym to be one of the country’s best college basketball teams.
“We’ve got a bunch of cadets who are just playing their butts off,” coach Jeff Bzdelik said.
On Tuesday night, the cadets leveled TCU 72-39, using hustle on defense and discipline on offense from tip-off to buzzer to subdue the bigger, taller, faster, stronger and thoroughly befuddled Horned Frogs.
“Their teamwork is their size and their skills are their talent,” TCU coach Neil Dougherty said. “They play very well as a team, but they’re also more athletic than they’re usually given credit for.”
Dan Nwaelele scored 13 points and Matt McCraw and Tim Anderson each added 11 as the Falcons (19-2, 6-1 Mountain West) cruised to their 27th straight home win, the second-best streak in the nation.
The Falcons turned the tables on TCU, which brought the league’s best field goal percentage defense (41 percent) into Clune Arena but were quickly overwhelmed at both ends of the court.
While the Horned Frogs (10-8, 2-4) couldn’t find an offensive rhythm, shooting 32 percent, the Falcons were hitting from all over, making 60 percent of their shots in the first half and 63 percent in the second.
“It was great to see us drop down some early shots,” Bzdelik said. “It really put them behind the 8-ball a little bit and it got the crowd really into it and it gave us confidence.”
The Falcons defied complacency as well as the law of averages by shooting even better in the second half despite Bzdelik emptying his bench beginning with more than 7 minutes left.
“Well, if you slack off there’s potential for the other team to come back in the game. We didn’t want that to happen tonight,” Nwaelele said.
Anderson said it all started on defense.
“We tried to stay consistent throughout the game and offense is always a variable,” he said. “But defense can keep you in those games when you’re missing shots, so on the defensive end we tried to stay consistent. Energy on defense, that leads to quicker cuts and those layups.”
The Horned Frogs, outrebounded 32-22 by the smaller, feistier Falcons, doomed themselves to a fourth straight loss with a slow start, making just one jumper, one layup and one free throw in the first 13 1/2 minutes and falling behind 19-6.
Air Force pushed its lead to 33-15 at halftime, closing with an impressive 8-0 run over the final three minutes, including a 3-pointer from John Frye, who picked up the slack with seven first-half points when starting center Nick Welch got into foul trouble and took a seat just 5 minutes in.
“They do guard you very well, but when you get some open looks, you have to convert them,” Dougherty said. “Every time they got an open look they scored. We weren’t able to do that.”
Air Force, coming off a season-low 39-percent shooting performance against San Diego State on Saturday, led by as many as 35. Brent Hackett’s nine points led the Horned Frogs, who made just five baskets in the first half.