They had lost it. While recently wandering the Rocky Mountain region, with disastrous side trips to California, Air Force’s Falcons tossed away the promise of a once-golden season.
The team had bolted into Mountain West play with five wins in seven games, igniting visions of a return to the NCAA Tournament. Then, boom, the good time ended as the Falcons stumbled to six losses in eight games.
On an otherwise miserable Saturday, the Falcons recovered their season with a hugely entertaining 89-88 victory over No. 12 New Mexico. This was no fluke. Air Force engaged in a 40-minute slugfest with the Lobos, who should do serious damage in the postseason.
The final sequence will be remembered by Air Force’s long-suffering fans for the next five decades. Michael Lyons dribbled downcourt as the final seconds ticked away, and everyone in the building expected him to take the last shot.
He had just drained a 3-pointer while surrounded by Lobos. He had already scored 30 points. He is the Falcons' undisputed star.
But Lyons could see fellow senior Todd Fletcher alone in the corner. Lyons drew three Lobos to him with 4 seconds left while expertly playing the role of decoy.
Then he dumped the ball to Fletcher, who declined to hesitate. He knew, as soon as he released the ball, that it would drop. He knew euphoria was an instant away.
“It felt dang good, that’s for sure,” Fletcher said.
As the ball dropped, pandemonium invaded Clune Arena as 4,000 Air Force supporters rose in unison while 2,000 New Mexico fans crumpled in their seats. Those who love the Lobos endured a perilous, snowy journey only to see their team lose.
For Air Force’s five seniors, this game announced how far they traveled in four seasons. Heading into their final year, Lyons, Fletcher, Taylor Broekhuis, Mike Fletcher and Kyle Green had found ways to lose 36 of 46 conference games and spent most of their careers competing for one of college basketball’s worst teams.
Prior to the season, the word on the senior quintet was mixed. Denver coach Joe Scott, who directed the Falcons to the NCAA Tournament in 2004, predicted a surprising season for Air Force. The seniors, he said, would lead the way to satisfaction.
Others – and, yes, this includes me – wondered about the quintet. It’s beyond difficult to transform a program’s culture in one season. Losers usually keep losing.
The quintet silenced me and other doubters. Sure, there were baffling, rocky times during the season. How this team, which defeated New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State, lost to Fresno and Nevada remains beyond comprehension. This was a team with two personalities, powerful at home and woeful on the road.
Still, give the Falcons their moment. The Lobos are big, mean, deep, versatile and crafted by the lovably sinister Steve Alford, one of college basketball’s most irritating and gifted coaches.
“We score 88 points, we should win games,” a confused Alford said after he emerged from the Lobos locker room.
But, Steve, this was not an evening of logic. A loud, properly rowdy crowd and a courageous, free-firing team played off each other. When the Falcons fell behind by seven with 6 minutes left, I gave up on them. The Clune faithful refused to surrender.
When the game ended, cadets stormed the floor and lifted Fletcher high above the court.
During the past few weeks, his team had lost its way. Fletcher raised his arms to the sky. He was surrounded by unfiltered joy, which makes sense.
With one shot, Fletcher rescued a season.