Don't be surprised if Air Force continues to select its starting lineup by way of an open competition.
That's what Falcons coach Dave Pilipovich did with his starting five on Thursday. Unhappy with the effort he had seen, Pilipovich took the guys who worked hardest in practice this week and gave them starts.
The team then rewarded Pilipovich with its best offensive performance of the year in a 92-86 victory over South Dakota at Clune Arena.
"We got a little bit out of character, just not being selfish but being immature," said Pilipovich, whose team lost a pair of games last week by a total of 47 points. "So we said on Monday that we were going to get back to being Air Force basketball - and that's playing hard. We may not win every game, but we're going to play hard."
Featuring a starting lineup that included junior Ethan Michael - who had 38 career minutes before Tuesday - and freshman Zach Kocur, the Falcons not only played hard but played better basketball than they had all season. They committed no second-half turnovers, had assists on 20 of their 26 field goals and forced 10 second-half turnovers to help overcome a 13-point deficit to the Coyotes. Air Force shot 60 percent during a 62-point second half and had five players reach double figures for the first time in three years.
"We knew we had to bounce back, we came out with that enthusiasm and that effort and carried it on throughout the game," said freshman Hayden Graham, who scored all 10 of his points in the second half. "We knew we had to get that win. It was a must."
Marek Olesinski had 19 points and eight rebounds for Air Force, Justin Hammonds had 13 points despite attempting just four field goals and Tre' Coggins had 12 points despite not hitting his first shot until 7:53 remained in the game.
South Dakota guard Casey Kasperbauer scored 14 consecutive points during one stretch, stepping as far as 8 feet behind the 3-point line on one shot.
But after that run, Kasperbauer didn't hit another shot.
"We went to man and Tre' Coggins said, 'I want him. I want to guard him,'" Pilipovich said. "That was big."
The Falcons at their best tend to be a grind-it-out type of unit. In this case they just outran an opponent and added a bit of creative scoring.
On one play Max Yon stepped through the defense in the lane, and was expecting to hear a whistle. When he didn't, he threw the ball up left-handed with enough spin to go in the basket for two of Yon's career-high 24 points. It was the kind of improvisation Air Force didn't know if it would see again after Michael Lyons graduated in May.
“I said the same thing,” said Yon, who had a career-high 24 points. “I just thought, ‘What would Mike do in this situation?’ So I tried to be creative with it.”
The game wasn’t full of positives, of course, as 86 points to their Summit League visitors might translate to triple digits against the top guns in the Mountain West. Still, the mission for this game was accomplished when Pilipovich entered the locker room in the postgame, wrote “Team,” on the board and everyone knew what it took to earn it.
But this approach might not be duplicated too often.
“I think it was the best week we’ve had in practice,” Yon said. “It was grueling and hard fought. But I don’t know if my body can handle that every week.”