San Diego State forward Malik Pope soared in air space high above the rim, and he performed his flying act right in front of Air Force’s disturbingly silent cadet section. His dunk with 9:39 left offered a challenge to the Falcons.
How did Air Force respond?
Seconds later, Air Force’s Ryan Swan earned an offensive foul in a moment of frustration. He extended his arm, pushed off, inspired a whistle and opened the door to chaos.
The Aztecs scored the next seven points to slam the door shut on Air Force’s chances at a mild upset. San Diego State won, 67-56.
This is a young Air Force team. This also is an Air Force team filled with rare promise. Swan, a sophomore on a sophomore-dominated team, is openly ambitious, and he has reason for his belief. These Falcons have young talent.
Next season, the Falcons could climb above .500 in the Mountain West for the first time since 2006-2007. They could turn Clune into a vicious destination for visiting teams. They might even return life to Clune’s comatose cadet section, once the home of the proud and the loud.
But they must embrace wisdom. They must remain calm and focused in tense moments. They must answer opponent air shows with grit and fire.
Swan knows all of these truths.
“That was a punch in the mouth,” he says of Pope’s dunk.
The proper response, Swan says, is to “throw a punch back.”
Instead, he responded by “just backing down, and that’s on me.”
Swan has a strong understanding of what could push his team much higher in conference standings.
“We got to keep working,” he says. “We’re not the biggest. We’re not the most athletic, but if we work hard, that’s going to be our ticket.”
Looked at from a certain angle, the 11-point loss was encouraging. On Feb. 3 the Aztecs destroyed the Falcons, 81-50, on a long night in San Diego.
But from another angle, this loss hurt. The Falcons outscored the Aztecs by 21 points from the 3-point line. The Falcons battled the Aztecs to a near draw for rebounds, 33-32.
Little things were the difference. Air Force repeatedly declined to get serious until far too late in the shot clock. The Falcons declined to attack the rim, which explains why they took their first free throw with 42 seconds left.
“Small plays,” Swan says. “If we look at Nevada and Boise, they do all the right things. They have little to no mess ups. If we can mature, I feel like this team has a bright future.”
The Falcons were flying from 2003 to 2007, when they averaged 22.5 wins per season and twice traveled to the NCAA Tournament. Back then, they were masters of the small stuff. They scrambled to loose balls. They calmly answered rim-shaking dunks with 3-pointers.
They won winnable games.
Wednesday was one of those winnable games for the Falcons, who found a way to lose.
Swan did not run from his error. He saw his shortcoming and vowed to change. He gave every indication he learned a tough lesson.
Those lessons should be valuable to a youthful team full of hunger.
And next season could be vastly superior to this one.