LAS VEGAS - Dave Pilipovich met up with Colorado State's Gian Clavell on the way to a postgame press conference Thursday.
"I told him in 30 years of basketball, he's one of the the best competitors I've ever seen," said the Air Force coach.
Sometimes you're simply beaten and have to tip your cap to the other side. That's what that exchange was all about.
Behind 30 points from Clavell - the Mountain West Player of the Year - the second-seeded Rams blew past Air Force 81-55 in a conference quarterfinal matchup on Thursday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Falcons hung around early, leading 24-23 after 12 minutes, but a 7-minute scoring drought near the end of the first half and a slew of tough shots from Clavell made this yet another lopsided loss in this series.
Air Force, which finishes its season 12-21, has lost 12 in a row to its in-state conference rival and is still seeking its first semifinal appearance at the conference tournament.
The Rams are now 4-0 in Mountain West quarterfinals under coach Larry Eustachy and could find themselves playing Nevada for a conference title for the second straight week as they'll play in opposite semifinals. The Wolf Pack took the league's regular-season crown on March 4.
Clavell had 33 points in that game.
"He is Player of the Year for a reason," said senior Hayden Graham, who led Air Force with 15 points in his final game. "The dude can score. There's not a bad shot for him, really. He's done it to every team in the conference, it's not like he just lit us up. He's a great player, and he finds a way to get his, and he's an energetic guy, you can tell when you're playing on the floor with him."
It's not as though Air Force was unaware of Clavell, who scored 28 in an 85-58 Rams victory over Air Force in early January. And many of the shots were tightly contested. But the Puerto Rico native grew up playing against an older brother and knows how to find his shot when it looks like the opportunity isn't there.
"He has a lot of freedom, and that's what we recruit to," Eustachy said. "If you can make it, you can take it."
Air Force skidded into this tournament with nine losses in 10 games before throttling No. 7 Wyoming in the opening round, capitalizing on a 25-0 run to start the game. Some of that good fortune appeared to carry forward when an early entry pass from Graham into the post was deflected and went into the basket.
Colorado State ended any thought of advancing, but that opening-round victory is what the Falcons will remember from an otherwise challenging final two months of the season.
"Yesterday was fun," Pilipovich said. "Yesterday we did things that I don't think people thought we could do and beat a very good Wyoming team. And the way we did it, from the beginning to the end, is really something. That's what we'll remember, that's what we'll look upon when we look back at the season."
But, the coach said, Thursday's loss is what he'll show the returning players. He wants them to understand where Colorado State has placed the bar in the conference.
"We have to ratchet it up a notch," he said.
The group that will be asked to do that finished the final 6 minutes on Saturday, as Air Force played five freshmen. Lavelle Scottie led that group with 12 points and eight rebounds. He made 9-of-11 shots in the tournament.
"There's an extremely bright future for Air Force basketball," Graham said. "There's some talent on this team that maybe hadn't been around Air Force before.
"I'm excited to follow it and see it."