Result aside, if Air Force can cut and paste this effort over the coming months it can compete in the Mountain West.
That says a lot about Nevada, which brought its roster stacked with NBA-caliber talent into Clune Arena and brushed aside the Falcons’ best performance of the season in an 86-75 victory.
It also says a lot about Air Force, which had been mired in a miserable December slump but on Saturday very much held its own against the best team in the league.
“I don’t know if encouraging is the right word. It’s motivating,” said forward Lavelle Scottie, who scored 16 points for Air Force. “It’s not encouraging to come out here and lose. But it’s motivation to come out here and show what we can do in this league and that we can compete with anybody. Because that’s a good team.”
Yes, Nevada (15-3, 4-0 Mountain West) is loaded. The defending Mountain West regular-season and tournament champions have won 13 straight against conference opponents. It’s also a team that’s competing under a framework entirely different than Air Force. All but two of the Wolf Pack’s points Saturday came from Division I transfers, including 23 from Caleb Martin (from N.C. State) and 21 from Kendal Stephens (from Purdue).
When the Falcons (6-9, 0-3) clogged the middle, coach Eric Musselman’s team, which played only two players shorter than 6-foot-7, simply stepped outside and hit 15 of 31 3s.
But here’s the thing, Air Force had been losing to lesser teams in blowouts. Losses to Fresno State, New Mexico, Army and UC Riverside came by an average of 21 points. This, despite Nevada's prolific outside shooting, was not a blowout, and both teams shot 52.7 percent from the field.
“When things aren’t going so well, you work,” coach Dave Pilipovich said. “And they worked.”
Air Force spent a week off shooting, meeting and practicing; and doing so after young players like freshman Keaton Van Soelen and sophomore Ryan Swan had established themselves as starters.
With a week to let that status marinate, Swan hit 7-of-8 shots for 15 points and Van Soelen had six points with three rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal. The Falcons were outscored by four points during Van Soelen's team-high 34 minutes on the floor and by seven points in the six minutes he sat.
That pair, along with the sophomore Scottie, hit 16-of-22 shots and more than half of Air Force’s points came from sophomores and freshmen.
“I thought we really grew with some younger players,” Pilipovich said. “The younger guys weren’t afraid of the big stage.”
After 14 games of searching, it seems Air Force has found its desired combination. This group built an 11-point lead over Nevada in the first half and fell behind by double digits only after a 3-minute, 45-second scoreless snap midway through the second half changed what had been a one-possession game.
“Somebody had to make a little bit of a run and separate,” Musselman said. “We were able to make that run.”
Though the Falcons showed signs of improvement, this remains a team that hasn’t defeated a Division I opponent in more than a month – a streak that stands at six in a row.
“We’re anxious, because we know what we can do, but we’re not there yet,” Swan said. “It just sucks to keep on saying that we’re, ‘Almost there.’”