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Air Force basketball uses second-half defense to erase 15-point deficit in victory over Utah State

February 24, 2018 Updated: February 24, 2018 at 6:10 pm
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photo - Air Force guard CJ Siples, left, knocks the ball away from Utah State guard Sam Merrill in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, at Air Force Academy, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Air Force guard CJ Siples, left, knocks the ball away from Utah State guard Sam Merrill in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, at Air Force Academy, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) 

Dave Pilipovich didn't just challenge his team with some harsh halftime words, but he challenged them to play a different style.

Size disadvantage be darned, the Air Force coach told his team it was time to play man-to-man defense.

It worked. All of it.

The Falcons held Utah State to 20 percent shooting in the second half, recovered from a 15-point deficit and won 75-65 in front of a season-high crowd of 3,267 at Clune Arena.

“I challenged them probably more than I did all year. I said, ‘It’s on us,’” Pilipovich said. “We put a goal up that we couldn’t let them score 30 points in the second half.

“They scored 20.”

The victory snapped a three-game losing streak for Air Force (11-16, 5-10 Mountain West) and allowed it to surpass its conference win total from a year ago with three games remaining.

Lavelle Scottie led the way with 18 points, Trevor Lyons and Sid Tomes each scored 14 and Caleb Morris added 13 in 15 minutes off the bench.

But this one was all about the defense, which would have been an absurd notion prior to Pilipovich’s halftime speech and adjustments. At the break, when the Falcons trailed 45-32, Air Force had allowed Utah State to shoot 59 percent, including an 8-of-12 start from 3-point range, and it trailed 10-0 in points off turnovers.

After the switch from a collection of zone defenses to man, the Falcons limited the Aggies to 1-for-12 shooting from 3-point range, led 18-0 in points off turnovers and led 8-0 in fast-break points. They collected eight second-half steals and blocked three shots.

“He definitely got after us,” said Tomes, who scored 11 points and had two steals in the second half. “I think we’re a group that can take that. If somebody challenges us – especially our head coach, who we look up to; he’s our leader – we absorb that.

“I take a lot of pride in playing man-to-man. I think we all do. It’s just, your guy’s not scoring. That’s the mentality.”

The Aggies didn’t score for the first 3½ minutes of the second half. Air Force used a 16-2 run to cut the deficit to 47-46, then moved in front for the first time at 55-53 on a Morris 3-pointer on a possession kept alive by a Lyons rebound after his missed free throw.

“We’ve got a team full of tough guys,” Lyons said. “So when (coach) was getting on us, we took responsibility. We’re the ones out there playing.”

Guard C.J. Siples tied Scottie and Lyons for the team lead with three steals, while adding seven points and two assists, and freshman forward Keaton Van Soelen blocked a pair of shots and grabbed a team-high seven rebounds. Van Soelen has blocked a shot in five straight games.

In the first meeting this season, Utah State (14-15, 7-9) used a 42-point second half to push a four-point halftime lead into a 71-49 victory.

Pilipovich told his team in the locker room that the same would happen Saturday without a change in energy. And his team’s response is what pleased him most about this.

“I thought our defensive effort in the second half – and that started with Trevor and C.J. – was unbelievable,” Pilipovich said. “I thought we were really aggressive. I thought we were energized. I thought we played cadet basketball with grit and relentlessness and we were on the floor, diving … it was fun.”

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