The late magic might have been there for the taking once again for Air Force, but it appeared too tired to find it.
A team that erased 22- and 23-point deficits in its past two games couldn’t generate those key plays in a 62-58 loss to Abilene Christian at Clune Arena on Wednesday night.
“We can’t keep digging these holes for ourselves,” senior guard Trevor Lyons said. “The team, they just outplayed us tonight.
“We just ran out of gas and time.”
Even after falling down 17, Air Force still had its chances. Its top 3-point shooter, Ryan Manning, could have cut the deficit to two with 1:20 remaining, but an open look missed its mark (a recurring theme in a game that saw the Falcons go 3 of 18 from 3-point range). A little later it looked like Pervis Louder had a steal and an easy layup, but he was whistled for a questionable foul. Then, Abilene Christian missed two free throws, but Air Force couldn’t secure the rebound.
It was one thing after another, but that margin for error would have been considerably greater if not for 20 turnovers.
“We can’t turn the ball over 20 times,” coach Dave Pilipovich said. “That can’t be us.”
Pilipovich wasn’t particularly fired up about this result, understanding that this is a difficult stretch for his cadet-athletes as they prepare for finals and endure a five-games-in-10-days-in-three-time-zones stretch. Air Force didn't have a full practice in its one-day prep for Abilene Christian, opting instead for a walk-through because Pilipovich "didn’t want to lose today’s game yesterday in practice."
“I am sensitive to that and I appreciate what they do and I respect what they do and I think it probably was a factor here a little bit,” he said. “But never will I use that as an excuse.”
This was a vastly different game from the comebacks against Denver and Western State. In those games, the opponents came out shooting fire to build large early leads that crashed when the percentages evened out.
On Wednesday, Abilene Christian shot just 35.5 percent in the first half but took a 27-24 halftime lead largely because it took nine more shots as Air Force struggled taking care of the ball.
When the Wildcats heated up, making 5-of-8 3s in the second half, they surged ahead by as many as 47-30. The Falcons cut that to within two in the final 12 seconds but couldn’t clear the hurdle.
Pilipovich seemed willing to accept it … if his team learns from it.
“I think this game was good for our team,” he said. “We needed a wake-up call. We’ve had some guys have some good moments individually and they get excited – they call home, they get a text, they get a tweet. But we keep saying, ‘You’ve got to be gritty. You’ve got to be gritty.’”
Instead it was Abilene Christian (6-3) showing the grit, leading 15-8 in points off turnovers after registering eight steals, leading 9-4 in second-chance points and getting to the free-throw line 15 times compared to the Falcons’ eight.
Air Force (5-4) was led by Lyons’ 13 points and seven rebounds. Lavelle Scottie added 12 points. Ryan Swan and freshman Keaton Van Soelen each contributed eight points off the bench.
Afterward, Lyons spoke up with a message for his teammates.
“I just said it’s a quick turnaround,” Lyons said. “We lost this, but we’ve got to put it behind us because we’ve got another one on Friday at UC-Riverside.”