Jan. 6, 2011
AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP) - Conference victories have not been a regular occurrence for the Air Force men's basketball team in recent years, so they made sure to savor Wednesday night's triumph.
Michael Lyons took an outlet pass from Evan Washington, slammed it home, was fouled and made the free throw with 1:47 remaining to give Air Force the lead for good in a 77-69 victory over Utah in a Mountain West Conference opener Wednesday night.
Lyons scored a career-high 26 points and brought the Clune Arena crowd to its feet with the emphatic dunk while being fouled by the Utes' Will Clyburn. After a steal at the other end of the court, Derek Brooks connected on a 3-pointer to put the Falcons (10-4) up 72-67.
"That dunk was all Evan's work, and I'm just glad I was the beneficiary of it," said Lyons, who had been nursing a knee injury in recent weeks. "I've been doing a lot of rehab, and it's been working. Today I was able to sustain my energy the whole game. Today, I really felt good."
Air Force hit five free throws in the final 33 seconds to seal the victory, its first against Utah (7-8) in seven games. The win was just the second regular-season conference victory for the Falcons in the last three seasons and gave Utah its fifth consecutive loss this season.
"If you had told me we were going to win tonight with them shooting 54 percent from three and 47 percent from the floor, I would have told you, `No way,'" Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds said. "It's a tribute to our players, because they found a way (to win). We'll take it."
Clyburn, the conference's second-leading scorer at 19.1 ppg, hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give Utah a 67-66 advantage with 2:40 remaining. He finished with 16 points, while Chris Kupets came off the bench to lead the Utes with 25.
Utah stayed alive at the 3-point arc, connecting on 13-of-24 shots, while Air Force kept pace at the free-throw line. The Falcons were 18-for-20 from the line, while the Utes did not get to the line until the 14:17 mark of the second half.
"You have to give a great deal of credit to Air Force for the performance they put on today, especially shooting the basketball," said Utah assistant coach Jeff Smith, who was filling in for head coach Jim Boylen, who was unable to make the trip due to a family illness. "For us, the rebounding effort again reared its ugly head in the second half. If you can't rebound the ball at the end of close games, it's difficult to win in any league, especially our league."
The Falcons out-rebounded the Utes 30-24 despite being at a distinct size disadvantage. Senior Evan Washington was limited to two points, but had a career-high 11 assists - the most assists for a Falcon since A.J. Kuhle had 11 against San Diego State on March 1, 2004.
"We don't give game balls, but if we did, I'd probably give it to Evan," Reynolds said.
Air Force will need similar play from its stars in its next three conference games against BYU, UNLV and San Diego State - a trio of teams that boasts a combined 43-4 record so far this season.
"We've got to rise up to the challenge," Reynolds said. "I don't know many other teams that are going to face what we're going to face, unless you're in the Big East. If we continue to play the way we're capable of, we can be more and more competitive in the league, but we've got to do better defensively."
The first half featured six lead changes, with the Falcons - who hit just one of their first six 3-pointers - taking a 34-33 lead into the locker room.