Updated: March 12, 2014 at 10:42 pm
LAS VEGAS • With its 15-point cushion stolen away, nothing was left to soften the blow for Air Force.
The Falcons couldn’t keep that advantage over the final 5:40 on Wednesday, falling 61-59 to Fresno State and making yet another early exit in the Mountain West Tournament in the most painful of ways.
“It’s going to hurt ’til November,” coach Dave Pilipovich said. “We don’t get to tip it up on Monday or Wednesday.”
The collapse could be blamed on several areas. The Falcons missed 11 free throws, including five of their last six. They gave up six points off turnovers in the final eight minutes, as Fresno State (17-15) switched to a full-court press. Air Force (12-18) also stopped scoring, making one shot in the final 5:46.
“We just kept telling each other in the huddles to stay together,” said junior Max Yon, who scored 15 points.
“We tried to stay as positive as we could, but it just didn’t go our way in the end.”
Air Force, the No. 10 seed, is now 2-15 in Mountain West Tournament games.
Tre’ Coggins had a potential tying layup blocked out of bounds with 3.8 seconds. On the following inbound pass he caught the ball unguarded at the top of the key, but after a brief pause opted not to shoot but rather try to stick with the original plan of taking the ball to the rim.
His runner hit off the back iron and the horn sounded before a putback could be attempted.
“It did cross my mind, which I think was part of the problem, to shoot that 3,” said Coggins, who led Air Force with 20 points. “But, yeah, I knew all along the plan was to get to the rim.”
It makes sense that the mind games favored Fresno State. Air Force has seen several games like this slip away. In fact, before Wednesday its most recent 15-point lead also came in a loss.
So while Air Force was trying to think its way out of a recurring nightmare, Fresno State was just trying to stick with the season’s script.
The Bulldogs, who scheduled tough games at Pitt, Utah and Florida before it knew it would be without two key big players, endured a stretch in which it lost 10 of 12 and started 2-7 in the Mountain West.
But the No. 7-seeded Bulldogs rallied and have now won nine of 11.
It was that rallying mentality that took over in the final 5:40 on Wednesday, and once the momentum shifted it was clear this game — that looked like a blowout when DeLovell Earls hit a layup to put Air Force up 56-41 with 5:46 remaining — would come down to the wire.
“We felt like, hey, we have a legitimate chance,” said senior Allen Huddleston, who scored 15 points for the Bulldogs. “Let’s take it. Let’s not hold back. That’s exactly what we did.”
Tyler Johnson hit a pair of 3s in the final 94 seconds, the second of which tied the score with 1:16 remaining.
The Bulldogs went ahead on two Alex Davis free throws with 12 seconds remaining.
“The game’s played for 40 minutes,” said Johnson, who scored 19 points. “We’re going to fight for every single one of them.”
It certainly wouldn’t be fair to say Air Force didn’t show fight. The Falcons started the season poorly with losses to Northern Colorado and Regis in games that, while they didn’t count against the record, certainly showed the team where it stood.
The climb from those defeats to six conference wins to a 15-point lead in a Mountain West Tournament game was steady, but it all came crashing down in the final five minutes.
“That’s very hard,” Coggins said. “Just knowing that if we had made those free throws, we probably would have seen a different outcome. You know, that’s one of those things we wish we could take back, but we won’t be able to.”