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Free of government closure concerns, Air Force basketball can turn focus to avoiding shutdown at hands of New Mexico

February 9, 2018 Updated: February 9, 2018 at 7:07 pm
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photo - CSU guard Che Bob takes the ball past Air Force guard Sid Tomes during the first half of a game at theAir Force Academy on Tuesday, February 6, 2018. Air Force defeated CSU 78-73. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)
CSU guard Che Bob takes the ball past Air Force guard Sid Tomes during the first half of a game at theAir Force Academy on Tuesday, February 6, 2018. Air Force defeated CSU 78-73. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

One shutdown has been averted for Air Force basketball.

Now what of the other?

Congress passed a budget bill and the president signed it Friday morning, so a government shutdown will not put Saturday’s game against New Mexico in jeopardy. The last time the Falcons were set to host an afternoon game on a Saturday – Jan. 20 against Fresno State – a shutdown wiped it out.

The athletic department believed it had a plan in place to allow games to continue this time around had a shutdown occurred, but unexpected details could have derailed those contingencies.

That’s all moot now.

The focus for Air Force (9-13, 3-7 Mountain West) is avoiding a shutdown like the one it encountered in an 87-58 loss at New Mexico in the Mountain West opener Dec. 27.

In that game, the Lobos (12-13, 7-5) employed what coach Dave Pilipovich calls a “helter skelter” defensive approach to make the Falcons labor to advance the ball up the floor and then scramble within the remaining time on the shot clock. Because this prevented Air Force from utilizing its set offense, it had to resort to an ad-libbed approach that resulted in 17 turnovers vs. just seven assists, 37.9 percent shooting (including 3 of 16 from 3-point range) and just 20 points by halftime.

Things should be different this time around. For starters, the personnel is vastly different. Frank Toohey and Ryan Manning both started that game in Albuquerque, logging a combined 33 minutes. Dane Norman and Pervis Louder played 19 minutes off the bench. With Louder out for the season with a knee injury, Toohey serving as a backup and Manning and Norman having their roles severely slashed, the only time those four saw in Tuesday’s victory over Colorado State came in the form of 3 minutes from Toohey.

Also, Air Force is at home, which has made a big difference. Aside from wins at San Jose State and Colorado State – the bottom teams in the Mountain West – the Falcons have been dreadful on the road in conference play. They are 0-4 in the other trips, where they have been outscored by an average of 78-54 while shooting 35 percent overall and 22 percent from 3-point range.

At home, where the slate has already included games against conference leaders Boise State and Nevada, the Falcons have been outscored by just four points per game (as opposed to 24 on the road), the shooting percentage climbs to 45 and the 3-point shooting jumps to 39 percent.

“Maybe I’m a glass is half-full guy,” Pilipovich said after his team went 12 of 26 (46.2 percent) on 3-pointers against the Rams, “but our team can shoot it like this.”

If Air Force can shoot like that with any kind of consistency, there is still much to play for this season. After Saturday’s home game, the Falcons take a two-game swing to UNLV and Boise State next week. Then comes a closing stretch with four of five games at home against teams that are 18-28 in the conference.

A win against New Mexico would leave Air Force just two games out of the No. 5 spot in a league where the top five receive byes in the first week of the conference tournament.

“We’re in the second half of conference play right now and we’re trying to make a run,” said sophomore guard Sid Tomes, who has hit 50 percent (11 of 22) from 3-point range since Jan. 17. “We want to be playing our best basketball by the tournament.”

The schedule is set up for such a run. The potential of another delay because of another government-related stoppage has been removed. Now it’s just up to the Falcons to avoid more shutdowns on the court.

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