Coach Dave Pilipovich was in distress, mainly because his Air Force basketball team was in distress. He knew where to go to solve his problem.
He went straight to the team’s leading scorer, Michael Lyons.
“I need you to step up,” Pilipovich said. “We need you to lead this team.”
Pilipovich’s brief speech, spoken in a calm voice while looking straight into Lyons’ eyes, proved effective. The Falcons recovered from an alarmingly sluggish start to defeat the well-traveled Golden Lions from Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 65-49.
The Golden Lions have played nine games in seven states and four time zones. They have wandered all around America searching for victories. They have only one win. They have yet to play a home game.
But the Golden Lions came roaring into this latest stop on the road, seizing a 12-0 lead and inspiring Pilipovich to ask his star for help.
Lyons responded with 26 points, including 15 in a first half when the rest of his teammates were clanging shots from everywhere. The Falcons went into the locker room at halftime trailing 31-25.
“I think we came in seeing their record and where they’ve been and thinking we could just walk through,” Pilipovich said.
He challenged his team to compete with more fire in the second half. His challenge ignited his team, which outscored the Golden Lions, 40-18, in the second half.
Arkansas-Pine Bluff looked weary in the second half, which makes sense. The Golden Lions have concentrated on earning money for the school’s athletic department by playing road games.
Coach George Ivory said his players have attended class three days in the past three weeks. The routine is to go to school in Pine Bluff on Monday and then hit the road for games.
All this traveling has led to fatigue, and confusion.
“We just flew in from – where was that last game?”
“Oh, it was Michigan State.”
But Lyons believes the Golden Lions were done in by altitude, not their endless traveling. In the late minutes of the first half, he heard Arkansas-Pine Bluff complaining about the lack of oxygen.
Lyons heard one player ask, “Who turned the air off?” Another asked, “How do you play up here?” Yet another asked, “Where’s the air?”
The questions made Lyons smile.
“That’s always good to hear,” he said.
Mike Fitzgerald followed Lyons with 13 points, the only other Air Force player in double figures. Forward Davon Haynes led the Golden Lions with 18 points and nine rebounds.
The victory pushes Air Force to 7-2. The Falcons play at California-Riverside Dec. 22.
“I’d like to be 8-2 by Christmas,” Pilipovich said.