March 3, 2012
Air Force Academy, Colo. (AP) - Colorado State came into its regular-season finale with Air Force not only looking for its first conference road win of the year, but also to take a step closer to an NCAA Tournament berth.
The Rams got both accomplished.
Wes Eikmeier scored 23 points, and Colorado State withstood a 3-point barrage from Air Force in a 75-65 win at Clune Arena Saturday. The Falcons (13-15, 3-11 Mountain West) hit 13 3-pointers, but could not stop the Rams (19-10, 8-6) defensively.
Both teams shot at least 50 percent from the field in a game that featured six lead changes. Colorado State won for the fourth time in five games and improved to 1-6 in conference play on the road.
"We had to be at our best," Colorado State coach Tim Miles said. "Walking into the locker room and seeing the pride on the kids' faces because we finally got a road win is so gratifying as a coach. You could see the weight of the world on those guys' shoulders, and they played through that."
Miles knows the victory is a big boost for his team's chances of securing its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2003.
"I think this was critical for getting into the NCAA Tournament," said Miles, who earned his 70th win as the Rams' coach. "I think a road win was vital, and I think getting another win was more vital. I don't think it ends here."
The Rams are expected to get one of the top four seeds in the Mountain West Conference Tournament, which is set for March 8-10 in Las Vegas . Miles feels confident his squad will be ready for the event.
"We haven't put a Mountain West trophy up in the men's basketball office since 2003, and that's what we want to go to Las Vegas for," Miles said. "We've beaten every team there. We're going to have our work cut out for us, but we have to have the faith that we can go there and have a crack at it."
The Rams held a shaky 57-56 lead with 8:55 remaining when Air Force freshman Max Yon was called for a foul on Eikmeier and then a technical foul for arguing with referees. Eikmeier promptly knocked down four free throws to give Colorado State a five-point advantage.
Michael Lyons hit a 3-pointer with 7:55 left to cut the Rams' lead to 61-59, but Colorado State responded with a 10-3 run to pull away.
"This feels really good, especially at this point of the season when we can carry a little momentum into the conference tournament," said Eikmeier, the conference's second-leading scorer. "I got in a groove and got some free throws to go in, and overall, it was a good team victory. I think the keys were a lot of the little plays we made that won't show up on the stat sheet.
"We gritted out a tough win."
Dorian Green added 16 points for the Rams, who outscored Air Force 30-18 in the paint.
Air Force saw its losing streak reach four games in front of a season-best crowd of 4,858. The loss spoiled senior day for the Falcons' three seniors - Taylor Stewart, Shawn Hempsey and Scott Stucky - as well as the first game for Dave Pilipovich as Air Force's permanent head coach.
"We couldn't be more proud of the guys for their effort, their attitude," said Pilipovich, who is 2-5 as Air Force's head coach. "They spread us out good, and we were vulnerable to dribble penetration, either to score or kickouts. The execution was good for the most part. We can build on that."
Air Force hit 10 of its first 14 attempts from beyond the arc, but connected on just three of its final eight 3-point tries. Lyons ' 18 points and 16 points from Mike Fitzgerald paced the Falcons, who had 22 assists on their 23 baskets.
"Defense wins games, and we didn't play defense," said Lyons, who ranks third in the conference in scoring. "They're a real good team, a real good shooting team, and we gave them a lot of open looks."
Colorado State got out to a quick start in the first half and led by as many as 11 before Air Force fought back. The Falcons were 8 for 11 from 3-point range and closed the half with a 12-5 run to cut the Rams' lead to 37-34 at the break.