RENO, Nev. – Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich strolled in silence through a dimly lit corridor underneath Lawlor Events Center on Saturday evening, trying to make sense of this one.
Even a mascot dressed as a giant wolf walking to his dressing room, as if unintentionally trying to lighten the mood, didn’t help. This 74-69 road loss in which Nevada closed on a 15-3 run just hurt too much.
“We knew that you’re never safe with them because of how athletic they are and how they shoot the ball,” said Pilipovich, pausing every few seconds to unleash tame expletives that would be allowable in a PG movie. “We just couldn’t get that one stop or one extra rebound. We kept giving them extra possessions.”
Deonte Burton scored 22 points and Malik Story had all 16 of his points in the second half for the Wolf Pack, who trailed 61-51 with just over 5 minutes remaining.
Air Force (14-8, 5-4 Mountain West) still led by a point in the final minute when Michael Lyons couldn’t control a pass and Marquee Coleman came up with the steal and finished with a transition layup, drawing the foul from Lyons in the process. He made the free throw to put the Wolf Pack up 69-67 with 31.8 seconds remaining.
Nevada (12-11, 3-6) then forced another turnover, as Mike Fitzgerald – who scored a team-high 17 points – was whistled for traveling with 20 seconds left.
“I was supposed to attack the rim, that’s what I did," Fitzgerald said. “It’s a tough call. I did not expect to get called for a travel. They got into my body and I thought they were calling a foul so I threw it up because I thought I was going to the line. But a call’s a call.”
Nevada made 6-of-7 free throws in the final 32 seconds in sealing the victory.
“I know how Air Force feels,” Nevada coach David Carter said. “They had it in their grasps and probably let it slip away. We felt like that here on Wednesday against Colorado State.”
In that game the Wolf Pack led 62-57 late in the second half before the Rams came back and won by four.
Air Force built its lead behind the play of its five seniors. Fitzgerald followed his 30-point effort against Nevada in the conference opener with another solid shooting performance, including 7-for-7 from the line. Taylor Broekhuis scored 13 on 6-of-7 shooting, Lyons had 10, Todd Fletcher had eight points, three assists and two steals and Kyle Green came off the bench to hit three second-half 3-pointers.
The play of the veterans seemed to be the right formula for a rare conference road win, but it wasn’t to be.
“It’s like it didn’t happen, almost,” said Fitzgerald, still in disbelief moments after the game. “But it did. Nevada finished the way you’re supposed to finish a game.”
Air Force must get over this one in a hurry, as it hosts UNLV on Wednesday and Colorado State on Saturday. Both teams beat the Falcons in the first half of the conference season.