BYU 62, No. 25 Air Force 58
AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP)—The Brigham Young players leaped and bounded off the court to a chorus of boos from the Air Force student section.
It was the precise sound the Cougars wanted to hear.
BYU knocked off No. 25 Air Force 62-58 on Tuesday night, ending the Falcons’ 30-game winning streak at Clune Arena.
The Cougars also clinched at least a share of the Mountain West Conference title with the win. BYU (22-7, 12-3) now owns the longest home-winning streak in the nation at 30 games and can clinch the league title outright with a win Saturday at home against Utah. A UNLV loss in one of its two remaining games would also clinch BYU’s first outright conference title since 1987-88.
“I tell you what: I’ve been embarrassed in that arena a lot of times,” said senior Austin Ainge, who scored a team-high 14 points. “I’ve had this circled on my calendar for a long time. It feels about as good as any win I’ve ever had.”
The Falcons took the lead 58-56 on a 3-pointer by Jacob Burtschi with 4:50 remaining, but didn’t score again the rest of the way. It’s their first loss at home since Utah beat them 65-56 on Feb. 19, 2005. They’d won 54 of their last 55 home games.
“I don’t think we thought we were invincible at home,” Burtschi said. “Give BYU credit. They did a great job.”
The Falcons led by as many as 11 points in the second half, but BYU went on an 18-6 run to take a 52-51 lead with 6:38 remaining on a soft floater by Keena Young. The senior forward scored eight straight points in BYU’s pivotal run. He finished with 12 points.
“We’ve been fighting all year,” Ainge said. “Coach tells us just about every meeting we have, every huddle, to keep fighting, keep fighting and the score will take care of itself.”
After the game, Air Force coach Jeff Bzdelik struggled to find the right words to describe his group of six seniors playing in their final game at Clune Arena.
“I’m so proud of them,” Bzdelik said of the senior class that went 53-2 at Clune.
He’d give them all a hug if he wasn’t afraid of catching the flu bug from them. Nick Welch and Matt McCraw had to go to the hospital Monday night and each received IV fluids. McCraw went back Tuesday morning for three more units.
The team also didn’t get home from its Saturday afternoon loss to Texas Christian until Monday night because of dust storms and airplane problems in Dallas. The team could’ve taken the first flight out Monday morning, but gave up their seats to 18 military personnel trying to get back home to Fort Carson to see their families. They’d been in Iraq for the past nine months.
“It puts things in perspective,” Bzdelik said. “It makes you think when stuff like that happens.”
Tim Anderson and Burtschi each had 15 points. Dan Nwaelele scored 14, becoming the 21st player at Air Force to eclipse 1,000 points for his career.
Jimmy Balderson had 11 points and Trent Plaisted 10 as the Cougars won for the ninth time in 10 games.
“They were up to the task,” BYU coach Dave Rose said. “To beat a top-25 team on their home court in late February … I think that is very good for our postseason.”
Bzdelik is giving his team a three-day pass. His edict was no basketball, just hit the books and forget about everything. Air Force won’t play again until the MWC tournament.
Welch thinks it’s a good plan.
“Obviously, we want to be back out there on the court,” said Welch, whose team dropped to 6-6 since starting 17-1. “The time off may do us some good. We need to clear our minds, get caught up on our schoolwork and get healthy.”
The fact the Cougars were able to overcome an 11-point deficit in one of the most hostile environments has their confidence soaring.
“We’ve been in situations where we were down more than that, so we just stayed together as a team,” Young said. “I think the strength of this team is just staying together and learning to play (through) adversity. It gives us confidence going to the next game.”
One last order of business remains in the regular season for BYU—beating Utah at home.
“We dont want to share (the title),” Ainge said with a grin.