LAS VEGAS – Air Force lost a lot more than its best player when Michael Lyons left after just 94 seconds with a knee injury. The Falcons lost their identity.
Without its star senior guard, Air Force fell apart in a 72-56 loss that continued the program’s horrid history in the Mountain West Tournament.
“That wasn’t us,” said Falcons coach Dave Pilipovich, whose team also lost senior center Taylor Broekhuis to a concussion. “They were wide-eyed, like ‘Where’s our guys?’ We were trying to get them to relax and settle in, but by the time we did that it was too late.”
Lyons, a first-team all-Mountain West selection and the league’s leading scorer, twisted his knee as he dribbled near midcourt and Bryce DeJean-Jones stole the ball by reaching around him and knocking it loose at the 18:26 mark in Wednesday’s first half. Lyons stayed on the ground for several minutes and put no weight on the leg as he was helped off the court.
He didn’t return. Neither did any semblance of normalcy for the Falcons, who led 3-2 at the time of the injury.
Sixth-seeded Air Force (17-13) went through scoring droughts of 7, 4 and 3 minutes as No. 3 UNLV (24-8) sensed a chance to gain an advantage and intensified its defensive effort. At one point the Falcons had 12 turnovers and 12 field-goal attempts in a nightmarish first half.
“It really is frustrating,” said Air Force senior Mike Fitzgerald, whose seven points were tops among the Falcons’ starting five. “Like coach said, it’s something you can’t really expect when you come into a game.”
The Runnin’ Rebels, playing on their home court at the Thomas & Mack Center, led by as many as 16 in the first half. Freshman and probable NBA lottery pick Anthony Bennett scored a game-high 23 points and DeJean-Jones had 12.
Air Force opened the second half clearly looking to shoot its way back into the game from 3-point range and cut the lead to 38-29 with 17:31 remaining. But UNLV prevented any comeback by shooting 64 percent in the second half, including 6-of-11 from 3-point range. Air Force made 7-of-17 from long range in that span.
“We valued the ball,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “That is the fourth game in a row we had between nine and 10 turnovers. That is a huge deal. So for us to get 18 assists and nine turnovers, that’s always the first number I look at.”
Air Force’s only hot hands came from the bench. Senior Kyle Green, who replaced Lyons, had 13 points. Sophomore Marek Olesinski also had 13 and freshman Cameron Michael had 11. Olesinski and Michael combined to go 6-of-9 from 3-point range.
“Those are young guys we can build on and hopefully continue to develop those younger players,” said Pilipovich, whose team had 42 points from its bench.
Air Force has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. The focus turns to whatever postseason opportunities the Falcons might have. Pilipovich hopes his 17 victories – sixth most in school history – and an 8-8 record in the country’s top-rated conference is worth a spot in the NIT.
“These young men have done some great things,” Pilipovich said. “I’m disappointed that they didn’t get to finish with Mike Lyons and Taylor Broekhuis.
“We had a great run and we want to continue to do some things.”