ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP)—Air Force’s February fade appears to be over.
Jacob Burtschi and Nick Welch combined for a rare four-point trip late in the game and the No. 15 Falcons shook off another horrendous start to beat New Mexico 60-51 Saturday.
The Falcons (21-4, 8-3 Mountain West Conference) had dropped two of three, including a 62-41 loss to San Diego State earlier in the week. They appeared ready to extend the slump when they missed nine of their first 10 shots.
“Even good teams are going to struggle,” Burtschi said. “We put those three games behind us and it’s a chance to start over. We came in here and got a big win.”
Air Force, which scored a season-low 16 first-half points at San Diego State, turned it around in the second half Saturday. The Falcons consistently hit key shots to hand the Lobos (14-11, 3-7) their third conference loss in The Pit this season.
Dan Nwaelele and Tim Anderson each scored 17 points for Air Force, but it was Burtschi and Welch who sealed the win with four points in a span of 2 seconds.
With Air Force ahead 48-45 after New Mexico’s Roman Martinez scored on a short jumper, Burtschi banked in a shot and was fouled by Chad Toppert. Burtschi missed the free throw, but Welch slipped in to tip in the miss for a 52-45 Falcons lead with 2:38 left.
“I knew I had missed it, but Nick came out of nowhere and got a nice little tip-in. That’s huge. It gave us a little bit more of a cushion,” Burtschi said.
More than enough against a New Mexico team that has struggled all season. The Lobos blew a 21-point first-half lead against Air Force at Colorado Springs and lost 65-57. They also lost in The Pit to BYU and Colorado State.
“I thought Air Force did a better job than we did at executing in the last six minutes of the game. I think we went off on our own a little bit,” said New Mexico coach Ritchie McKay, who is not only fighting to keep the Lobos above .500 but also to keep his job.
Anderson added two free throws with 40.8 seconds remaining, and free throws by Burtschi and Nwaelele pushed the lead to 58-48 with 15 seconds to go.
Air Force again struggled to score in the first half. The Falcons have not scored more than 23 points in the opening half in their last four games and had lost two of three after winning 17 of their first 18.
The Falcons had one field goal—a 3-pointer by Anderson—in the game’s first 8 minutes and went scoreless over the final 4:06 of the first half. Still, they trailed just 23-19 at halftime and probably would have been closer if they had gotten a call on an obvious hard foul by New Mexico’s J.R. Giddens just before the end of the half.
Anderson stole an inbounds pass and went up for a 3-pointer. He was hit hard by Giddens with at least a second remaining, but the referees failed to call it.
Anderson shook off the no-call.
“It’s just one call and you’ve got to play through it,” he said.
Besides, all he wanted to do was talk about the win.
“We lost focus in a few games, relaxed and got complacent,” Anderson said. “When we bring energy and execution on offense, we can beat anyone.”
New Mexico took a 19-9 lead with 6:31 left in the first half on a basket by Darren Prentice. Air Force then scored 10 straight points. Nwaelele hit a layup, Burtschi hit back-to-back 3s from the top of the key and Anderson finished the run by slicing into the lane for a tough 5-footer that got a favorable roll.
Giddens, with 10 points, was the only New Mexico player in double figures. The Lobos shot a season-low 32 percent.
McKay, who carried on a running conversation with the referees for most of the game, said the Lobos missed a good opportunity to salvage their season against a team that came in on its heels.
“You’ve got a chance to beat the (15th-) best team in the country on your home floor and you’re playing well for 30 some-odd minutes,” he said. “The crowd’s in the game and we didn’t execute and that’s what elite teams do, especially in February.”