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No bite: Air Force stuns UNM in the Pit

Feb. 24—New Mexico left Air Force leading scorer Rytis Petraitis wide open at the top of the key for a 3-pointer with 7 seconds remaining, giving the Falcons an improbable 78-77 win Saturday in the Pit.

Air Force entered the game as 18 1/2-point underdogs and took advantage of several Lobos miscues to win in the Pit for the first time in 17 years, shocking the announced crowd of 15,011.

On its final possession, UNM point guard Donovan Dent passed to freshman guard Tru Washington, who passed up an open 3-point shot to drive in closer to the basket where he missed a well-defended jumper.

"Clearly a missed opportunity there. Give Air Force credit. They made big plays — made big 3s," UNM coach Richard Pitino said after the loss, the Lobos' third in the Pit in the past four home games.

"... Disappointing one. We know this was a missed opportunity and we're going to have to find a way to rebound from it."

The loss drops UNM to 21-7 overall and at 9-6 in Mountain West play. The Lobos now have little hope to grab a share of a league regular-season title.

With Air Force's NET entering the game being 273, the Lobos now have a Quad 4 loss at home and may find themselves on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament picture. Prior to Saturday, UNM's worse loss was against UNLV, which entered the day with a NET ranking of 83.

For much of the game, the Lobos looked anything but the heavy favorite against Air Force (9-17, 2-12 Mountain West), a team UNM beat by 17 points on the road last month.

In the first half, the Falcons employed a physical defense that got whistled for 13 fouls, but UNM made only 10-of-17 at the free throw line. By halftime, Petraitis had three fouls and four other Air Force players had two fouls.

The Lobos were unable to exploit the Falcons' foul trouble after halftime.

Instead, Air Force hit eight second-half 3-pointers and 11 for the game — the first time in eight games and just the third in 15 Mountain West games the Lobos allowed an opponent to hit double-digit 3s — and it was the Lobos' foul trouble that seemed to be more impactful down the stretch.

With 17:23 showing on the clock, UNM senior guard Jaelen House was called for his third foul. Fifteen seconds later, on the same Air Force possession, he was called for his fourth foul and went to the bench — surprisingly for the rest of the game.

Coincidentally, it was a House injury that led to his missing a game last February at Air Force, a contest the Falcons won.

"Just foul trouble," Pitino said as to why House sat nearly the entire second half (the final 17:08 of the game). "And then he had been out a while and I just love Tru's energy more than anything."

With House on the bench, Air Force extended a 43-42 lead to 48-42 in the next two possessions. A 3-pointer with 7:37 left in the game pushed its lead to 65-59.

An 11-0 Lobos run from there appeared, momentarily, to get the Lobos on the right track, only for Air Force to respond with backdoor cuts leading to dunks or kickout 3-pointers.

"It's challenging. We didn't make them uncomfortable enough," Pitino said.

Back-to-back shots by Jamal Mashburn Jr. pushed UNM's lead to 74-70 with under two minutes left in the game.

When Dent made the second of two free throws with 34 seconds left, Air Force brought the ball up court and called a timeout. A Lobos foul with 10 seconds left gave AFA an inbounds attempt under its basket.

Why was Petraitis left so open? "JT (Toppin) kind of over-helped on a curl that I don't think he needed to and tried to scramble, but they made a great play," Pitino explained.

UNM's ensuing inbounds play was somewhat controversial.

In previous games in this situation — including as recently as Wednesday night's last-second win over No. 22 Colorado State — the Lobos have opted not to call a timeout and instead have given the ball to Dent to drive the length of the court before the defense can get set. But after Petraitis' shot and as UNM's Mustapha Amzil was about to inbound the ball, game official Tommy Johnson blew his whistle and motioned to the Air Force bench. Johnson said something in the direction of Air Force coach Joe Scott and an assistant, both of whom were standing on the court. Air Force was out of time outs at the time and had the bench tried to call one, the team would have been assessed a technical foul.

Johnson continued to hold the ball while Air Force got its defense set and eventually Pitino subbed Mashburn in for Jemarl Baker Jr. before the Johnson handed Amzil the ball to inbound from the baseline.

After the game, the Journal asked the Mountain West office to explain the last officiating sequence, but has not yet received a response.

The Lobos finished with four scorers in double figures, led by Nelly Junior Joseph's 17-point, nine-rebound, three-blocked shot effort. They outrebounded Air Force 40-25 and outscored them on second chance points 22-10 and 48-38 in the paint. UNM also missed nine free throws (18-of-27).

Five Falcons scored in double figures, led by Beau Becker's 19 points. Air Force hit 44.0% of its 3-pointers (11-of-25).

FIGHT ROYALTY: Among the announced crowd of 15,011 in the Pit on Saturday afternoon were two of the biggest stars in women's combat sports — Holly Holm and Cristiane Justino, aka Cris Cyborg. The two are training together in Albuquerque ahead of Holm's upcoming UFC fight.