HONOLULU - Air Force survived a monstrous first-half collapse Wednesday night to earn its first postseason road victory in program history.
Mike Fitzgerald made both ends of a 1-and-1 with 7 seconds remaining, pushing the Falcons’ advantage to the eventual final of 69-65 in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.
The Falcons will next travel to Weber State for a second-round game on Saturday in Ogden, Utah. The time for that game, in the round of 16, has not been set.
Fitzgerald’s free throws came after Air Force scored on three consecutive possessions to hold onto a small lead late.
“Just staying calm is the biggest thing,” Fitzgerald told KVOR's Jim Arthur after the senior forward scored 25 points with nine rebounds. “We haven’t had much success this year on the road. To see our team stay calm under pressure was so important.”
Air Force certainly could have let this one get away. The Falcons raced to a 19-5 lead in the opening 10 minutes, but watched as Hawaii rushed back to take a six-point lead.
After trailing 34-31 at halftime, Air Force built a quick early lead in the second half and kept Hawaii at bay the rest of the way despite a strong inside game for the Rainbow Warriors led by 24 points from Isaac Fotu.
Hawaii had the ball trailing by two points late in the game but opted for a 3-point attempt to take the lead rather than trying to get it inside, where coach Air Force Dave Pilipovich believed Fotu was open. The 3-point shot missed, Fitzgerald came up with the board and sealed it at the line.
This is the first postseason road victory for the program and just the third Air Force team to win a postseason game of any kind. The 2010-11 team won its CIT opener and the 2006-07 team advanced to the NIT semifinals.
This Falcons squad was kept out of the NIT largely, it is believed, because of a season-ending injury to its top scorer, Michael Lyons. Lyons’ replacement in the starting lineup, Kyle Green, scored 11 quick points and tied his career high with 18.
At 18-13, Air Force is now tied for fourth-most victories in school history.
“We had the lull in the middle, but we finished strong," Pilipovich said on the postgame radio show. "I’m so proud of these guys."
Air Force tied its season high with 15 3-pointers, with six coming from Fitzgerald.