Air Force 83, Georgia 52
AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP)—So faulty in their final four regular season games that cost them an NCAA bid, the Air Force Falcons have been close to perfect in the NIT.
For the first 13 minutes of their 83-52 blowout of Georgia on Monday night, the Falcons had no fouls, no turnovers and not a single thing for their coach to complain about.
“I always look for something to yell at them about,” Falcons coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “I couldn’t find it there for a while.”
When the buzzer sounded on their second straight blowout—they beat Austin Peay by 24 in the first round—Bzdelik had precious few objections to anything his team did in winning its school-record 25th game behind Jacob Burtschi’s 21 points and Dan Nwaelele’s 19.
Air Force, the top seed in the West, advanced to the semifinals Wednesday night against DePaul at Clune Arena, where the Falcons have won 56 of their last 58 games.
“They’re clearly one of the best 20 teams in the country. I think it’s a major mistake that they’re not in the NCAA tournament,” Bulldogs coach Dennis Felton said. “Not only do they belong, but I’m quite certain that they would have advanced.
“I questioned whether they merited being in last year, but this year, they had a much better resume.”
Maybe Felton’s dissing them last year had something to do with the score on this night.
Bzdelik would only say the Falcons had plenty of motivation to take it to the Bulldogs, but he wouldn’t go into any detail. “Certain things stay within our family and we’ll keep them there,” he said.
After Air Force lost to Wyoming in the first round of the Mountain West tournament last week, Bzdelik gathered his players and admonished them not to hang their heads.
“What happens to teams like us is they’re hungover with depression for not making the (NCAA) tournament that they wind up getting beat their first round,” Bzdelik said. “But to me, I said, do we have any NIT banners in Clune? This is a wonderful thing. You look at the NIT media guide and it’s filled with Dean Smith, Lou Carnasecca, people like that. There’s great tradition and history.
“So, we have this opportunity to erase this feeling of numbness inside of us. Let’s embrace this opportunity and go and see what we can do.”
Clearly, the Falcons eagerly accepted their coach’s challenge.
The Falcons (25-8), whose NCAA bubble burst with four straight losses to end the season, surpassed last year’s win total in surprisingly easy fashion against a more athletic Bulldogs team that was bothered by the altitude and Air Force’s relentless zone defense and precision motion offense.
“We’re still a little upset the way we finished the year on a four-game losing streak, and we’re going to make the most of the NIT,” Burtschi said. “There’s nothing wrong with winning the NIT championship. Yeah, it’s not the NCAA, but you know what? After tonight, there’s only 24 teams playing and we’re one of those 24.”
The Falcons looked a lot like the team that started out 17-1 and rose to 13th in the rankings, their highest ever, and not the one that went 6-7 down the stretch.
Burtschi had 13 points and seven boards by halftime as the Falcons surged to a 43-24 lead. The Bulldogs (19-14), led by Terrance Woodbury’s 16 points, got no closer than 15 in the second half.
Air Force, which snapped a 17-game postseason losing streak with a 75-51 win over Austin Peay last week in the academy’s first NIT appearance, allowed just one basket inside the arc in the game’s first 13:35 and didn’t commit a foul until 6:57 was left in the first half in building a 37-14 lead.
Anderson took the opening tip and scored just four seconds into the game and Air Force took the lead for good on Burtschi’s 3-pointer two minutes later that sparked a 21-3 run that he capped himself with another 3 that gave Air Force a 25-8 lead.
“They were effective at everything,” Felton marveled.