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Grieving Hayden Graham overcomes emotion to lift Air Force past New Mexico

February 20, 2016 Updated: February 20, 2016 at 7:22 pm
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photo - Air Force forward Hayden Graham, right, shoots a basket for three points over New Mexico guard Xavier Adams late in the second half of an NCAA basketball game Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, at Air Force Academy, Colo. Air Force won 76-72. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Air Force forward Hayden Graham, right, shoots a basket for three points over New Mexico guard Xavier Adams late in the second half of an NCAA basketball game Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, at Air Force Academy, Colo. Air Force won 76-72. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) 

The index finger Hayden Graham lofted skyward was intended for a destination far above the scoreboard that told the story of yet another unlikely Air Force victory.

It was for the grandmother Graham had lost a day earlier and who had inspired the performance that made that triumph possible.

Playing through emotions, Graham scored all of his 21 points after halftime and led the Falcons past New Mexico 76-72 on Saturday at Clune Arena.

"It was for my grandma," Graham said. "I was kind of pitying myself in the first half and kind of caught up in my emotions. I realized at halftime that that's not what she would want me to do. I sucked it up, talked to myself a little bit and tried to get it going."

Graham got it going, all right. In addition to scoring 21 second-half points, he also grabbed nine of his 11 rebounds after the break and spearheaded a closing stretch in which the Falcons (14-14, 5-10 Mountain West) outscored the Lobos 32-19 over the final 10:26. Graham had 19 points in that stretch after scoring just six points in the 70 minutes that preceded it.

"The first half you could tell he wasn't tuned in," coach Dave Pilipovich said. "We talked about it in the second half, said what can you give us? He gave us a lot, didn't he?"

Graham learned after a loss last week at San Diego State that Laura Starling, his maternal grandmother, had been hospitalized in Jacksonville, Fla. He was awoken Friday morning with news of her death.

"She's like the greatest person ever," Graham said. "I mean, she raised my mother, and my mother is like the sweetest woman in the world. She cared so deeply about my brother (AFA Prep football player Gavin) and I and our cousin. She's honestly like the kindest woman in the world and she just believed in everything we did and couldn't be prouder. She was always behind us."

Every bit of the inspired effort Graham put forth was needed. The Falcons trailed by nine points in the second half when that final kick began. Air Force built a late lead as large as seven in the final two minutes, but Elijah Brown - the son of former Cavaliers and Lakers coach Mike Brown - hit three free throws with 10 seconds left to cut the gap to three, then the Lobos (16-11, 9-5) forced a turnover on the inbound pass.

But a 3-point attempt from Brown, who scored 32 points, missed and Graham sealed it with a free throw.

Jacob Van scored a career-high 22 points to lead Air Force. Zach Kocur added 13 points and eight rebounds and C.J. Siples had nine points and six assists.

In the past two games Air Force has avenged January losses by 36 points to UNLV and by 29 to the Lobos.

"(Air Force) is playing better," New Mexico coach Craig Neal said. "They're playing with confidence."

And Saturday, they were playing inspired.

"First half, sometimes I didn't even know he was on the court," Van said of Graham. "But second half, he just balled out. He played with a lot more energy and more heart than I've ever seen before."

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