Madison Smith scored eight of her game-high 23 points during a 16-point surge that saw Air Force go from 10 points down to comfortably in the lead during a 66-59 road win at Utah State on Thursday night.
Smith, a sophomore, made all 14 of her free throw attempts as the Falcons (10-10, 5-3 Mountain West) outscored the Aggies 23-12 from the line.
Utah State (4-14, 1-6) endured scoring droughts of 6:01, 3:42 and 3:06 in the second half against an Air Force defense that came up with 13 steals.
That longest drought was the killer, as the Falcons went from trailing 55-45 with 6:26 remaining to leading 61-55 when the Aggies final scored again with 25 seconds left.
Freshman Faith Shelton had the most complete game of her short career for Air Force, grabbing 12 rebounds, scoring nine points and adding four steals and two assists. The Falcons outscored Utah State by 22 points during Shelton’s 22 minutes of action.
Air Force banking the wins it "should"
Context matters. Air Force was 4-151 in conference road games in its first 20 seasons at the NCAA Division I level prior to the arrival of coach Chris Gobrecht. It has since gone 15-43 in Mountain West road games under Gobrecht. So winning on the road is never a given for this program.
But if Air Force wants to judge itself by the standard set by last year’s team – fifth-place in the conference, conference tourney semifinals, WNIT selection – it needs to win games like it did Thursday in Logan, Utah. The Falcons have now swept San Jose State and Utah State, the bottom two teams in the conference.
The road will get more difficult. The Falcons haven’t faced the three Mountain West teams ranked in the top 91 in the NCAA’s NET rankings (Colorado State, UNLV and San Diego State). They are 0-3 against the three conference teams ranked 102-213 (Wyoming, New Mexico and Nevada). They are now 5-0 against those ranked 222 and lower (Fresno State, Boise State, San Jose State and Utah State).
Air Force has never been a program that won enough on the road to say it should win any particular games away from home. But it appears to be working in that direction.
Underclassmen continue to emerge
It wasn’t just Shelton’s big game or 12 more points from Milahnie Perry – including a 3-pointer with 2 ½ minutes remaining to put the Falcons in front for good. What stood out was coach Chris Gobrecht’s obvious trust in her younger players down the stretch in a tightly contest conference road game, and their response.
Of the 50 minutes of action logged by Air Force players in the 10-minute fourth quarter, 22 went to freshmen, 18 to sophomores, four to juniors and six to seniors. The Falcons outscored Utah State 23-13 in that closing quarter, with freshmen and sophomores accounting for 20 of the 23 points.
The top three scorers in the game for Air Force were underclassmen – sophomore Madison Smith (23), freshman Perry (12) and freshman Shelton (9). Same for the top two rebounders – Shelton (12), freshman Emily Adams.
Free throws play a major factor, again
Air Force went 23-of-31 from the free throw line, the most it has scored from the line this season.
In games the Falcons have hit at least 15 free throws this season they are 6-0. That stat often goes hand-in-hand with winning, as teams will see a greater volume of free throw attempts as they lead in the final moments. But it’s also a stat that shows they are hitting those shots when they come, and it at least suggests the team is creating some of those opportunities prior to the final minutes (14 of Air Force’s attempts came before the fourth quarters).
The six games with 15 made free thows already matches last year’s total, when Air Force went 4-2 in those games. In the two years before that the team went 4-3 in games that saw them hit 15 from the line.