Jake Heidbreder may be a freshman playing his first month of college basketball, but he has experience in situations like this.
It was Heidbreder’s two free throws with 30 seconds left, followed by a defensive stop, that allowed Air Force to escape victorious 66-65 over Denver on Wednesday.
The Falcons had led by 23 points early in the second half, watched as the Pioneers came all the way back to take the lead in the final minute and then leaned on the clutch free throws from the freshman.
“To be honest, at that time I didn’t have any nerves,” Heidbreder said. “It was just being in the moment in the game.”
It helped that he’s been in moments like that before. As a sophomore in basketball-crazed Indiana, Heidbreder went to the line after being fouled shooting a 3 in a playoff game with 10 seconds left anda three-point deficit. He made the first two. The other team took a timeout to ice him. And he made the third.
Oh, and there were more than 8,000 fans in attendance in that sold-out high school game in the state’s biggest gym.
“Indiana basketball is obviously unique in its own way,” said Heidbreder who scored seven points with two assists with two rebounds. “Having crowds like that and having a good crowd here tonight factored in, too. I just stepped up and made them.”
It seemed unlikely Air Force would need heroics in this game. A.J. Walker exploded for 12 points in the first 10 minutes and at one point had outscored DU by himself 21-20.
“My teammates were finding me and I was just trying to reward them by hitting the open shot,” Walker said. “It was all fun.”
The Falcons had a dunk from freshman point guard Ethan Taylor just ahead of the halftime buzzer and were rocking 47-25 at halftime.
“It’s like I said to them, there’s nothing less important in life than a halftime score in college basketball,” Air Force coach Joe Scott said. “It doesn’t matter. Hopefully that’s what we take away from this.”
Scott wouldn’t even call this game strange, chalking it up instead to the 40-minute nature of college basketball.
Denver made adjustments on Walker (who finished with 27 points) and Taylor (who had 11 points and 10 rebounds to go with four assists, a block and a steal) in the second half, and in the process slowed the ball movement and flow within Air Force’s offense. The Falcons then shot 36.8 percent in the second half after shooting 62.1 percent in the first half, and Denver heated up. Making matters worse, Air Force went cold from the line, making just 3 of 8 in the second half before Heidbreder’s pair.
Denver (3-4) took the lead 65-64 with 44 seconds left on a jumper from Michael Henn, who led the Pioneers with 16 points and nine rebounds.
The Falcons took possession, found Heidbreder for a layup that drew a foul.
Air Force had considered subbing for the freshman, but Scott opted to leave him in.
“I said, ‘No, I want him out there,’” said Scott, who coached Denver from 2007-16. “I know when the games are on the line, he’s a basketball player ... I have tons of confidence in him, and I know he’s got confidence in himself. And that confidence is just going to keep growing here as we go through the season.”
The Falcons (5-1) host Idaho State at 2 p.m. Saturday with a chance to take a six-game winning streak into a Dec. 4 contest with Army at Clune Arena.
“It’s definitely better to learn on this side,” Walker said of the too-close call that this game turned into. “Better to learn from winning than from losing.”