The only things left for Air Force to do is win.
Of course, in a building project, that’s always the hardest step.
“That’s the only thing left to do,” said sophomore Ryan Swan after an 81-76 loss to UNLV at Clune Arena on Wednesday that the Falcons tied several times in the closing minutes after trailing by 13 early.
“But that’s easier said than done.”
This thriller illustrated the frustrations — and positives — for a this-close team that was getting blown out by everybody a month ago and has quickly built to being within a play or two of the big dogs in the Mountain West.
The Falcons largely neutralized probable first-round pick Brandon McCoy, limiting the 7-footer to eight points and five rebounds with three turnovers. In fact, none of UNLV’s impressive height made much of a difference as Air Force outrebounded the Runnin’ Rebels 33-29 and had a 19-2 edge in second-chance points.
But in the waning moments it was 5-11 Jordan Johnson, who scored 20, putting in five straight points with an assist and a key steal. And it was 6-2 Javon Mooring — whose 3 at the buzzer kept Air Force from winning in Las Vegas last year — hitting the dagger 3-pointer with 19 seconds left.
If it’s not one thing it’s another.
“I’m trying to stay positive the most I can,” said Lavelle Scottie, who scored 26 to pace the Falcons.
Swan and Scottie combined for 42 points against UNLV (13-4, 2-2 Mountain West) after going for 31 in a tight loss to Mountain West-leading Nevada on Saturday. The sophomore interior players provide the most encouraging tandem the Falcons have had in at least a decade.
But Swan doesn’t want to hear that yet. Not until there’s a victory to show for it.
“This is probably the worst feeling I’ve ever had,” he said. “I hate losing. This is the first time I’ve ever had to experience this. It’s just tough. I had my mom yelling at me to stay positive. Got to listen to mom.”
Swan provided some clips for his personal highlight film, isolating McCoy on three occasions and beating the McDonald’s All-American for buckets.
“I don’t really care about that, to be honest,” Swan said. “In the future, I guess I could tell my kids, ‘Oh yeah, I locked him up.’ That’ll be a good story for the future, but right now I don’t really care about that stuff.”
Yep, it’s an oddly frustrating time for Air Force (6-10, 0-4). Odd in that this could be the most improved team in the nation over the past three weeks, yet not able to enjoy that just yet.
They were close to breaking down that door, withstanding a sluggish start to tie it at 66 and 68. They got there thanks to 20 of 24 free throws and hustle plays that resulted in 15 more shot attempts than the Runnin’ Rebels.
But, again, it wasn’t enough.
“We’re so close,” coach Dave Pilipovich said. “More for them than me, is to get one in the victory column to reward them for their efforts and what they’re doing. But it’s going to come. We’re four games into (the conference season) and we’re excited about 14 more to go. We’re getting better.”