It wasn’t the score that stood out to Air Force players and coaches after a rare and thorough beat-down of UNLV on Wednesday night.
They all, instead, pointed to the rebounding differential, a plus-11 for the Falcons. Without that, and the effort that led to it, the 71-56 home victory wouldn’t have been possible.
“That’s what we’re most excited about is finally having a game where we won the rebounding,” said Mike Fitzgerald, who scored 18 points and led Air Force with eight rebounds. “If we can keep that going, I think we’re going to be sitting pretty well.”
Michael Lyons scored 27 points and DeLovell Earls added 12, but it was those rebounds that seemed to change everything as the Falcons (15-8, 6-4 Mountain West) ended an 11-game losing streak against the Runnin’ Rebels (18-7, 5-5).
When these teams met in Las Vegas in January, UNLV outrebounded Air Force 49-32 and had a seven-point differential in second-chance points in what was a five-point victory.
It was obvious what the Falcons needed to change, and they did in front of 2,553 at Clune Arena.
“They all did a heck of a job,” Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said. “Wow, they worked hard.”
By establishing themselves inside and preventing second chances, the Falcons negated UNLV’s advantage and built a 10-point lead within the first 11 minutes.
The Rebels were really never a part of the game after that.
“You can definitely sense when a team kind of falls back,” Lyons said. “When they did that we just attacked and things were working out for us offensively and defensively.”
Just as loosening up its approach has led to more offensive output for Air Force, it seems the same worked when it came to rebounding. Fitzgerald said players stopped focusing on the exact fundamentals of the blockout — which often didn’t work as larger, more athletic players would just jump over them — and instead just went after the ball.
The result was a 35-24 edge in rebounding.
UNLV attempted 19 3-pointers, making just five, but coach Dave Rice said effort was made to get the ball inside where touted freshman Anthony Bennett never got on track. He finished with eight points and eight rebounds.
“We tried. Give Air Force a lot of credit, they were very aggressive and physical on the defensive end,” Rice said. “We were not able to get it inside like we had prepared and planned to. Again, that is to their credit.
“It was an A-plus effort for Air Force.”
Some of the stats that resulted from that effort were downright shocking, none more than Air Force’s 13-0 edge in fast-break points against perhaps the league’s most athletic team.
While Air Force’s lead was never cut to single digits in the second half, there were some semi-tense moments when UNLV went on a 14-2 run and cut the lead to 65-53 with 3:46 remaining. The Falcons, during that time, went more than 7 minutes without a field goal.
Memories of a late collapse at Nevada on Saturday came rushing back.
“In my head I was just thinking, ‘Not again,’ once they started coming back,” Lyons said. “I know I turned it up a little bit and in turn the team turned it up a little bit as well.”
Lyons hit a couple of shots, Fitzgerald scored and that was it. UNLV didn’t bother fouling in the final minutes.