Air Force basketball can’t shake the “buts.”
Take a sometimes-up, sometimes-down night from C.J. Siples in a 67-56 loss to San Diego State on Wednesday as a prime example.
The senior guard had a highlight-reel block, assisted on four buckets, added three steals and scored 10 points, including two late 3s that led a late charge.
He also missed a block out that allowed the Aztecs to get a back-breaking second-chance bucket in the closing minutes. And, after hitting those first two 3s, he missed one that could have cut San Diego State’s lead to six points with 2 minutes left.
Instead, the Aztecs hit two free throws to stretch the lead to 11 points, and that’s where the deficit remained.
“It’s been just like, you get there, but …,” Siples said.
Yep, that’s where Air Force basketball is right now. Almost there, but not quite. The Falcons (10-16, 4-10 Mountain West) will have moments like a 13-2 first-half run against the Aztecs, but immediately follow that by giving up a 22-4 run that changes the game.
They’ll win two straight against Colorado State and New Mexico, only to lose three straight since then.
Two steps forward, three steps back.
“I thought we were better,” coach Dave Pilipovich said afterward, reflecting on the difference between an 81-50 Falcons’ loss in the first meeting between these teams Feb. 3. “But their athleticism …”
San Diego State (16-10, 8-7) held a 10-2 advantage in fast-break points, a 6-0 edge in second-chance scores and dominated 34-14 in the paint.
Their points came in bunches. That 22-4 run, which included the first eight points of the second half, changed the game after Air Force had taken a 21-17 lead. Quick six- and seven-point spurts in the second half pushed the deficit back to 15 when it looked like the Falcons were making a run.
“We got caught watching the ball a little bit there and they got some run-out scores,” Pilipovich said, “and that definitely led to their advantage.”
The Falcons simply opted not to attack San Diego State’s superior size on the inside. Instead, they hoisted 36 3s (making 13) and didn’t reach the free-throw line until 42 seconds remained on the clock.
The approach didn’t work, but there were times it looked like it might. Ryan Swan scored 11 points with eight rebounds, and fellow sophomore Caleb Morris scored nine points by hitting a career-best three 3s. Sophomores scored the first 23 points of the second half for Air Force.
With so many young players growing into larger roles, the future continues to look tantalizingly bright.
But – always a “but” – they want to see some of that success now.
“We’ve just got to keep working," Siples said. “We’re showing improvement from the last time we played those guys. If we keep working and keep listening to the coaches … when we get down to it, we’ll make the right play.”