Falcons Fall to Illinois, 78-69, at NCAA Tournament
SAN DIEGO (AP) - During some stretches, Air Force looked liked it definitely belonged in the NCAA tournament.
Then came the lulls, when the Falcons looked like a dubious pick.
So that probably makes the critics half right.
Illinois was just too big and too talented, and finally overpowered the Falcons 78-69 in a first-round game on Thursday night.
Freshman guard Jamar Smith was the surprise player of the night with 20 points, including six 3-pointers, for the fourth-seeded Fighting Illini (26-6). Illinois shot 58 percent from the field in its first NCAA tournament game since losing last year's championship to North Carolina.
The opponent this time was quite a bit different. The tournament selection committee took a ton of grief for adding Air Force (24-7) of the Mountain West Conference as the 13th seed in the Washington Regional at the expense of Cincinnati or Michigan.
Illini coach Bruce Weber was pleasantly surprised with the outcome.
``I'll be honest. I was thinking it would be 53-49 or something like that,'' Weber said. ``Both of us came out with pretty good energy.''
But Illinois had more.
``It's the NCAA tournament,'' Weber said. ``You play at that magic level.''
The Fighting Illini will play Saturday against Washington.
The Falcons go back to their rigorous academic grind.
``They have some good players,'' Illinois guard Dee Brown said. ``They're a scary team and I don't think anyone would want to play them in the first round.''
Brown was held to eight points, the third time in the last five games that the star Illinois guard has been held to single digits. But he made up for it with nine assists and a career-high nine rebounds.
Air Force tried to hang with the Illini, and succeeded at times. The Falcons' Princeton offense was more efficient in the second half than in the first, and they scored seven straight points, including four by guard Antoine Hood, to pull to 39-38 with 16:18 to play.
Illinois answered with a 3-pointer by Smith and a three-point play by Brian Randle to make it 45-38.
``We simply could not get enough defensive stops,'' Air Force coach Jeff Bzdelik said. ``They have a lot of offensive weapons.''
The shots stopped falling for the Falcons for a stretch, and they never got back into it.
Smith hit four 3-pointers in the final 14 minutes, and James Augustine, Warren Carter and Randle dominated inside.
A play by Randle with 2 minutes left seemed to sum up the talent gap. He stole the ball from Dan Nwaelele and went in for an emphatic slam dunk for a 76-62 lead. Air Force called a timeout to regroup.
Illinois took a 16-point lead before Air Force scored the final seven points.
Randle scored 15, Carter 12 and Augustine 10. Hood had 17 for Air Force, while Jacob Burtschi, Nwaelele and Matt McCraw had 13 each.
The game started with fans streaming into mostly empty Cox Arena at San Diego State. That was the result of the day's schedule being pushed back after bomb-sniffing dogs detected something suspicious two hours before the scheduled start of the opener between Alabama and Marquette.
The crowd was cleared from the arena after the first two-game session, as is the custom, and the compressed time between sessions didn't give fans with tickets to the next two games time to get in before tipoff.
``We were disappointed for our families and friends who couldn't be at tipoff of an NCAA game,'' Weber said. ``You've earned the right to play in an NCAA game and you're playing before no people. Something's got to be done about that. I think a lot of it obviously is TV and trying to get all the games spaced in.''
The Falcons led twice early in the first half, including 11-9 after a 3-point basket by Burtschi 11:55 before halftime.
But the Falcons couldn't control the tempo. Augustine scored six points and Carter had four during a 12-0 run that give Illinois a 21-11 lead, forcing the Falcons to take a timeout.