On the final shot of the most dominating performance of Mike Fitzgerald’s basketball life, the ball dropped cleanly through the net.
Happiness erupted at Clune. The kind of happiness that has been rare in this cozy arena for the past four seasons.
The 3-point shot from the corner gave Fitzgerald, Air Force’s senior forward, 30 points in a 78-65 victory Wednesday over Nevada that was not as close as the score.
When the shot dropped with 2:46 left, coach Dave Pilipovich took a couple of quick dance steps down the sideline before delivering a roundhouse left fist pump. Virtually everyone in the tiny crowd of 1,856 stood and shouted.
Fitzgerald might have been the most serene man in the building. He shrugged, laughed and started thinking about Saturday’s visit to Nevada-Las Vegas.
Give him and his team their moment. A few seconds after the shot, several dozen fans began streaming toward the exit. These early exits have been a common sight at Clune in the recent past, but it’s seldom been because the Falcons were comfortably ahead.
Point guard Todd Fletcher joked that he tried to wave the fans back to their seats. He wanted them to watch the complete Falcons show.
“We haven’t seen too many of those kind of wins,” Fletcher said, speaking the truth.
Fitzgerald gets prime credit for the jubilant departures. He produced a borderline mind-boggling line for the night, scoring 30 on only 10 shots. He made nine, seized eight rebounds and scored 23 points in the second half.
The strangest thing about the game was Nevada’s refusal to surround Fitzgerald in the second half. Fitzgerald kept dropping shots, and the Wolf Pack kept leaving him open.
Maybe, Fitzgerald said, Nevada defenders believed he would “cool off.”
He never did.
The game did not begin with promise for the Falcons, who scored nine points in the first 11 minutes and looked on their way to a dreary loss.
But this is a different Air Force team. For most of this century, Air Force coaches have demanded extreme offensive caution.
Pilipovich takes a different approach. He commands his team to attack the rim. He sets his shooters free.
Even as the Falcons struggled in the first half, Pilipovich kept slapping them on the back and telling them to shoot with confidence. The strategy worked. The Falcons shot 56 percent from the field in the second half, including a blistering 7-of-9 from 3-point range.
Fitzgerald’s shooting performance is the result of tireless labor. On Tuesday night, he borrowed Fletcher’s car to drive to Clune, where he worked on his shot. He wanted to end his shooting slump.
When that 3 dropped with 2:46 left and all the fun began at Clune, it was clear his labor had not been in vain.
This is, of course, only one game. But it could be an announcement of a surprising season.
Pilipovich and Fitzgerald seemed genuinely excited about the trip to Vegas, home of the nationally ranked Rebels.
“We got nothing to lose,” Pilipovich said. “Let’s go attack it.”
That’s a brilliant strategy.