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Showdown with Army would have been big for Air Force basketball even without Madison Square Garden backdrop

December 16, 2017 Updated: December 16, 2017 at 4:09 pm
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NEW YORK – Madison Square Garden wasn’t needed to make Sunday’s contest an enormous one for Air Force.

The circumstances already had that covered.

The Falcons have lost three in a row to Army and, because they haven’t played Navy since 2005, no active Air Force basketball player has won a service academy game.

The Falcons have dropped five of seven, all of this coming in a 2 ½-week stretch that included games in three time zones and coincided with the lead up to finals.

“We were all really tired last week,” said Ryan Manning, Air Force’s leading scorer at 12.2 point per game. “As soon as we came back and had that first workout (after four days away for finals), you could tell there was an instant energy change. People were ready to go out to New York and play Army and restart this season the way we think we should.”

This is also Air Force’s last Division I tilt before the opening of Mountain West play.

All of those factors will only be magnified by taking place in "the world's most famous arena."

“Playing at the Garden,” said Manning, who had never been in New York before touching down Friday evening, “and to be able to win against Army in there, that would be unreal. We’re super excited to have this opportunity.”

This was the “showcase” feel coach Dave Pilipovich hoped to accomplish when he reached out to Army in hopes the Black Knights could tap into their connections at the New York venue to bring a game there. The game is part of the 65th annual MSG Holiday Festival, and the military rivals will be followed by a meeting between local teams St. Johns and Iona.

Air Force's 11:30 a.m. (Mountain Time) game will not be televised but will be carried by 740 AM.

In Army (6-4), the Falcons (5-5) will see a team that takes quick shots, presses for 40 minutes and is hitting 42.3 percent from 3-point range, 12th-best in the nation.

Black Knights games have averaged a combined score of 154.1 points, up 20 from the average Air Force game.

The Falcons, who at times were without key players Pervis Louder, Sid Tomes and Frank Toohey during their recent slump, figure to have everyone available.

This will be just the 10th meeting between Air Force and Army, whose rivalry is nothing like it is in football either in history (the football teams have played 52 times) or in recruiting stakes. The teams occasionally cross paths when targeting high school prospects, but not with the same frequency as in football.

But this has been a competitive rivalry, with the Black Knights leading 5-4. The teams have split six contests since play resumed annually in 2011 after a 24-year gap.

“You always want to beat another service academy,” Pilipovich said. “It’s one of the games you circle on your calendar, I certainly do.”

The Falcons won’t have a chance to get on the floor of Madison Square Garden prior to the game. The New York Rangers hosted an NHL game Friday night and the Knicks were home Saturday, so the Falcons practiced at Air Force in the morning on Friday before traveling and then scheduled a workout at the University of Manhattan for Saturday.

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