LAS VEGAS - Air Force clearly wasn’t going away, so UNLV’s 7-foot NBA prospect finally took it upon himself to put it away.
Mountain West Freshman of the Year Brandon McCoy blocked three shots – including two critical swats in overtime – to propel the Runnin’ Rebels to a 97-90 victory in the first round of the Mountain West Tournament.
“I just wanted to win, and it was winning time,” said McCoy, whose team has beaten Air Force in overtime in three of their past four meetings at the Thomas & Mack Center.
McCoy also had 23 points and 12 rebounds Wednesday, but it was the two overtime blocks that loomed the largest.
The first block came when Air Force had finally taken the lead for the first time. The Falcons had trailed by as many as 13, but moved in front for the first time on a Trevor Lyons 3-point play to open overtime.
“You always think if you can go to four or five, maybe you put some more pressure on UNLV,” said Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich, whose teams haven’t trailed at the end of regulation in their past four Mountain West Tournament openers but are just 2-2 in those games. “Maybe you turn the tables a bit.
“But it didn’t happen.”
McCoy, trailing a play in transition, blocked the second of two Air Force layup attempts in a sequence. UNLV (20-12) then hit a 3 to tie it.
A few minutes later, Air Force’s Jacob Van – who scored 20 points to close his career – had a look at a layup that would have cut the deficit back to three points with 1:49 remaining, but McCoy blocked it as well.
UNLV then passed ahead in transition and got a dunk for a seven-point lead that, even with the craziness that this game had produced, seemed to seal it.
“They had some great plays down the stretch that let them get the victory,” Van said.
Air Force had turned in several spectacular plays of its own to stretch the game to that point.
With the Falcons trailing 71-66 with 3:41 remaining, Lavelle Scottie completed a four-point play. Scottie matched McCoy with a game-high 23 points.
Then, with 24 seconds left and Air Force down three, Falcons center Frank Toohey drew a foul and a UNLV goaltending call. He made the free throw and Air Force got the stop to force overtime.
The Falcons shot 13 of 27 from 3-point range and registered nine steals. Sophomore Caleb Morris turned in a career-high 17 points off the bench and Toohey scored 11 in his final game.
Senior Trevor Lyons went out with five points, seven assists, five rebounds and two steals.
The Falcons (12-19) were achingly close in a number of losses this season, including all three setbacks against UNLV.
When Pilipovich looks at those games, he finds one primary culprit.
“We need to get Brandon McCoy,” he said. “We need a 7-footer in our program. ... As of tomorrow morning I’m going to start campaigning for Brandon to go the NBA.”
First things first. McCoy and the Rebels are moving to the quarterfinals. The Falcons – close again but not close enough – are heading home.