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Air Force dominant down stretch in conference opener

By: BRENT BRIGGEMAN
January 9, 2013
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photo - Fans celebrate behind Mike Fitzgerald after his three pointer in the second half put the Falcons up by 20 points over Nevada at Clune Arena Wednesday, January 9, 2013, to open the Mountain West portion of their schedule.  Air Force went on to win 78-65 and Fitzgerald had 30 points for the day. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE
Fans celebrate behind Mike Fitzgerald after his three pointer in the second half put the Falcons up by 20 points over Nevada at Clune Arena Wednesday, January 9, 2013, to open the Mountain West portion of their schedule. Air Force went on to win 78-65 and Fitzgerald had 30 points for the day. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette Photo by MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE 

Air Force had enough of losing these types of games.

Facing an early nine-point deficit in its conference opener Wednesday night, the Falcons found the kick that had eluded them through the early part of the season in burying Nevada 78-65 with a dominant second half.

Mike Fitzgerald scored a career-high 30 points, the Falcons made 13-of-14 second-half free throws and fans were actually leaving Clune Arena early because the home team was in front by so much.

“I’ve never been more proud of a game than this team tonight, what they did,” Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said. “We were at this point right now where we could have dropped down and hung our heads. … No. They weren’t going to let that happen.”

The Falcons (9-4, 1-0 Mountain West), playing at home for the first time since Dec. 8, looked very much on their way to a third consecutive loss when Nevada (9-6, 0-1) jumped out to a 17-9 lead.

But things changed, largely because of Fitzgerald’s shooting.

“I’ve been waiting for this a long time in my career,” said the senior, who had made just 1-of-8 3-pointers over his previous four games before going 4-of-5 Wednesday. “Mostly just to have two good halves. I’ve had some games where I’ve started off games and didn’t finish hot and vice versa.”

Fitzgerald finished 9-of-10 from the floor, 8-of-8 from the free-throw line and added eight rebounds and three steals. But he had company. Todd Fletcher scored 18 points, making 4-of-6 3-pointers, Taylor Brokehuis hit 4-of-7 shots on the way to 10 points and the Falcons as a team shot 56 percent in the second half, including 7-of-9 from 3-point range.

All this came despite just three points from leading scorer Michael Lyons.

“It’s draining,” Nevada forward Cole Huff said. “A lot of the times it was late in the clock, too. We were locked in for so long and at the very end somebody is wide open. It was just mental lapses.”

Fletcher buried a 3-pointer just before the halftime buzzer to send Air Force into the locker down just 33-30. As it turned out, that was the start to a 28-10 run. It was the surge that was lacking in games that got away against Colorado, Florida and Wichita State.

“In the first half, we did a decent job – the energy was there,” Nevada coach David Carter said. “We just didn’t have that same energy in the second half.”

The advantage grew as large as 76-56 in the final 5 minutes, prompting the announced crowd of 1,856 to start to thin.

“I tried to wave them back in,” Fletcher said. “It kind of felt good. We haven’t seen too many games like this, especially in conference.”

This is the third straight season that Air Force has won its conference opener. Last year’s opening win was followed by seven consecutive losses.

Nevada was a bit taken aback in its first game in the Mountain West. Here they were playing the team picked last in the league and they were down 20 in the final minutes.

“It definitely shows how hard it’s going to be,” said Malik Story, who hit just 1-of-7 shots and scored three points (he entered averaging 16.8).

Nevada was led by 21 points from Deonte Burton.

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