Updated: January 30, 2013 at 12:00 am
Michael Lyons just had to hit the shot.
The Air Force senior conned a Fresno State defender out of position with a ball fake and, left completely alone, subsequently drained the 3-pointer.
“You have to,” said Lyons, saying he couldn’t follow such a successful move with a miss.
Similarly, Air Force’s successful start to the conference season put it in a rare favored position. It just had to win this game.
And it did, 62-50.
The Falcons handled the assignment the way favorites are supposed to — they jumped to an early lead, watched their best players take over and shot 12-of-15 from the free-throw line in the second half to put away the Bulldogs at Clune Arena.
“We have not been in this position before,” Falcons coach Dave Pilipovich said. “It’s kind of uncharted waters.”
Air Force (13-6, 4-2 Mountain West) has already won more conference games than it did last year (three). The program won just 10 total league games over the past four seasons combined. If the Falcons were to win either of their next two games — a tall order, with No. 22 San Diego State visiting Saturday and a trip to No. 20 New Mexico on Wednesday — it would be halfway toward that total at the halfway point in the league season.
With those matchups on the horizon, Air Force’s seniors didn’t fall into the temptation to overlook Fresno State (7-13, 1-6).
Todd Fletcher and Lyons combined to hit 11 of their first 15 shots and Fresno State didn’t lead over the final 28 minutes.
“We knew Fresno State had played in every game,” said Fletcher, who led Air Force with 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting and added five assists. “They’ve lost many of their games by less than seven, so we knew it was going to be a battle.”
Lyons finished with 15, Mike Fitzgerald grabbed 10 rebounds — the most by an Air Force player this season — and Kyle Green added eight points off the bench.
Air Force sprang to a 6-2 lead as Fresno State hit just one of its first nine shots. The Bulldogs eventually broke the funk behind Kevin Olekaibe — who scored 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting from 3-point range — but they couldn’t shake the struggles for good, finishing just 18-for-48 (37.5) from the field while Air Force shot 21-of-42 (50 percent).
“I said to my guys at halftime, we would be leading this game (if we had made our open looks),” Fresno State coach Rodney Terry said. “We shouldn’t be behind, but we’ve got to make those shots.”
Air Force never stopped making its shots. Fletcher hit a long 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to stretch the lead to seven points and Fitzgerald made the biggest shot in the second half, silencing a 5-0 Fresno State run with a 3-pointer with 11:18 remaining that put Air Force back ahead by 12.
Green hit all six of his free-throw attempts in the second half for the Falcons, who have won four in a row and are tied with UNLV, San Diego State and Colorado State for second place in the league.
“We know we’ve got to play all these teams again for a second time,” Lyons said. “We’ve just got to not get too emotional over these four wins and we’ve got to just work even harder because we know what our goals are at the end the season.”