Falcons End Season With 12-16 Record
May 1, 2003
In just three seasons as head coach of the Air Force men's basketball team, Joe Scott has elevated the program to more victories in one season than any Falcon team in over 10 years. This year's 12-16 record was the best since the 1989-90 campaign. However, its third consecutive 3-11 mark against conference opponents makes the team that much hungrier for more improvement next season.
Scott's team produced several other milestones during the season. The 12 Division I victories were the most in one season in the 47-year history of the program. It won nine non-conference games for the first time since the 1982-83 season, and the 6-0 start at home was the best ever against Division I opponents.
The Falcons had a number of close games in '02-03, including their final game of the season against Utah in the first round of the 2003 EAS Mountain West Conference Championships. The two teams displayed the kind of intensity and discipline that allowed them to finish in the top 15 in the country in scoring defense. Air Force led the nation, allowing just 57.0 points per game, while the Utes finished 14th at 60.3.
Air Force led the top-seeded Utes for the first 57 minutes and 32 seconds of the game, but could not hit some key shots down the stretch and Utah advanced with a 42-38 victory. It was the fourth consecutive game that Air Force allowed less than 60 points.
The campaign started with a big-time game on the road against Louisville and head coach Rick Pitino. The Falcons put up a good fight for 20 minutes, but succumbed to Louisville's full-court pressure and lost 65-47. Junior Joel Gerlach, an MWC honorable mention selection this season, led the Falcons with 15 points.
The team posted its first win in the initial home game of the season, a 72-43 shellacking of Stetson University. The Falcons shot 57 percent from the field and made 15-of-28 three-pointers, four of them by sophomore sharp-shooter Tim Keller, who led the squad with 18 points.
A 1-1 road trip included a 57-52 victory over Arkansas State followed by a 60-47 loss at Tennessee Tech. Gerlach and Keller combined for 72 of AFA's 104 points.
Texas-Pan American came to Clune Arena and the Falcons had revenge on their minds. UTPA edged Air Force in overtime the previous season in Texas, but the home team dominated from the start this time, building a 34-16 halftime lead en route to a 65-44 victory. The Falcons set a new school and MWC record by making 18 three-pointers against the Broncs, including five by Keller, who scored 19 points. It marked the first time in 30 years that Air Force won each of its first two home games by more than 20 points.
Junior A.J. Kuhle became the first Falcon other than Gerlach or Keller to score in double figures in four games when he notched a career-high 23 points in AFA's 70-56 victory at Georgia Southern for the Falcons' second road win of the season.
An 85-76 victory over Belmont University moved the Falcons to 3-0 at home thanks to 25 points from Keller, who made six of his 10 three-point attempts. The momentum was short-lived, however, as Oakland University handed Air Force a 61-44 road loss to snap AFA's three-game winning streak.
Air Force's only tournament appearance of the season was next, the Sierra Providence SunClassic in El Paso, Texas. The Falcons felt they had a great chance to win the tournament, but faltered in the first round against Alabama-Birmingham, losing 69-59. They rebounded nicely and defeated host UTEP in the consolation game, 63-45, behind 17 points and seven rebounds from Kuhle, who was named to the all-tournament team.
The non-conference schedule wrapped up with three consecutive home games. Another matchup with Georgia Southern on New Year's Day got things rolling, as all 15 Air Force players saw action in a 78-40 thrashing. The 38-point victory was the largest against a Division I team since a 109-60 win over New Mexico State on Feb. 5, 1966. Air Force continued its hot homestand with a 56-43 victory over service-academy rival Navy, then completed the trifecta by defeating Savannah State, 56-33.
A 9-4 overall record and a 6-0 mark at home provided plenty of confidence as the Falcons embarked on the MWC schedule. The 9-4 non-conference mark was one of the best ever for Air Force, and the team's stats were impressive as well.
Unfortunately, the team's confidence took a hit as Air Force lost its first three conference games, including the MWC opener at home against defending MWC Tournament champ San Diego State, 63-48. Air Force then played two great road games, but lost each by two points at Colorado State (51-49) and Wyoming (46-44).
A 75-71 victory over UNLV at home gave Air Force its 10th win of the season, already more than each of the previous two campaigns. Four Falcons reached double figures, led by Keller's 19 points. Gerlach posted the first double-double of his career with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Kuhle added 18 points. Senior center Tom Bellairs chipped in with 13 points and a game-high six assists.
Back out on the road again, the Falcons played their fourth consecutive strong game, but fell at Utah, 45-35. The game was a fierce battle, just like the conference tournament, with Utah taking the lead for good with 2:43 remaining and holding Air Force to just two field goals in the final nine minutes.
The Falcons got their second MWC win against Colorado State, beating the Rams, 80-75, at home. Freshman Antoine Hood scored 30 points, the most by a Falcon this season, and the second-most ever by an Air Force freshman. Keller added a career-high 26 points as AFA set a school record for shooting percentage in a conference game, making 71.9 percent of its shots from the field (23-of-32).
Unfortunately, the Falcons could not keep their momentum, as they lost their next five games, beginning with an ESPN "Big Monday" battle at home against Wyoming. Keller's 24 points were not enough as the Cowboys beat Air Force, 64-57, in the first nationally-televised game at Clune Arena since Feb. 1, 1992.
The Falcons wrapped up the regular season with three consecutive home games. Air Force played hard in all three, but dropped the first two to MWC regular season co-champs BYU (56-43) and Utah (57-52).
The regular-season finale brought New Mexico to Clune Arena, albeit an hour late due to traffic problems. It didn't seem to bother the Falcons, however, as Gerlach scored 18 points and Keller added 16 in a 68-60 victory. Freshman Nick Welch, who asserted himself as a tough inside player towards the end of the season, chipped in with career-highs of 10 points and six rebounds. The victory was AFA's ninth at home, the most in one season since the 1987-88 campaign, and gave Falcon fans some hope heading into the MWC Tournament against Utah.
The team's two seniors, Bellairs and point guard Vernard Jenkins, exit the program with their names all over the Falcon record book. Bellairs became just the fifth player in school history to score 900 points and grab 600 rebounds in a career. He is No. 3 on the school's career rebounding list with 694, and is fourth on the MWC's all-time rebounding list. He finished fourth on the team in scoring this season, averaging 5.8 points per game, and was the team's leading rebounder for the fourth consecutive year, pulling down 4.2 boards per contest.
Jenkins, meanwhile, is No. 4 on AFA's career lists for assists (328) and steals (141). He is second all-time in the MWC for steals. Jenkins played in 110 career games, which ties for No. 3 on the school's all-time list.
Keller led the team in scoring, averaging 14.8 points per game, and was an All-Mountain West third-team selection by league coaches and media. He led the conference in three-point shooting at 45.1 percent, the sixth-best percentage in the country. His name is also in the school's record book, as he is No. 3 on the career list for free-throw percentage (82.8%) and seventh all-time with 110 three-pointers.
Juniors Gerlach and Kuhle each had solid seasons. Gerlach averaged 12.1 points per game, second-best on the team, and was an All-MWC honorable mention for the second consecutive year. He finished third in the MWC in three-point percentage (42.7%) and scored in double figures in the last six games of the campaign. Gerlach needs just 146 points next season to become the 16th player in program history to score 1,000 points.
Kuhle, meanwhile, led the team in minutes played for the second year in a row. As durable and smart a player on the team, he averaged 8.7 points and three rebounds per contest. He was also second on the squad with 76 assists, and posted a career-high eight boards in the MWC Tournament game against Utah.
Freshmen Hood and Welch showed great potential during the season. Hood, who started four games at point guard, scored 5.5 points per game and shot an impressive 46.4 percent from the field. Welch came on strong toward the end of the season, as he scored 22 points in his first 12 games and 62 points in his last 11. He had career-bests of 10 points and six rebounds in the regular-season finale against New Mexico.
Sophomores David Peterson and Marc Holum performed well as backup players throughout the season. Peterson appeared in 25 games, averaging 2.4 points and 1.6 rebounds and scored a career-high 11 points against Oakland University. Holum, meanwhile, shot 48 percent from the field and posted career-highs of seven points and four boards in the home opener against Stetson.