This was exactly what Air Force needed, in so many ways.
A 76-66 victory over Nevada hinted at a fix-all for all that has ailed the team.
It ended a five-game losing streak. It locked up a critical No. 7 seed in the Mountain West Tournament, guaranteeing juggernaut UNLV will be on the other side of the bracket. It showcased the balanced scoring the Falcons are capable of producing. It saw the Falcons stand firm on the boards against one of the best rebounding teams in the Mountain West.
Oh, and in the home finale, senior Nikki McDonald scored seven consecutive points during a tense fourth-quarter stretch after the Wolf Pack had clawed back into the game.
“Just the way you write it up. Storybook, for sure,” coach Chris Gobrecht said. “That’s why you like to have seniors, because seniors have a sense of urgency that it’s hard sometimes for younger players to have, because younger players think they’re going to be doing this forever. Seniors — it definitely hits them.”
Stuck in a February rut filled with close losses, Air Force had the feel of a team in need of something positive; and to have all those positives be so specific to their needs made it all the more impactful.
“To see us pull through and execute something coach has been harping on is huge,” McDonald said about the rebounding in particular. The Falcons rank at the bottom of the Mountain West in rebounding. Nevada ranks fourth.
The Wolf Pack still won the battle on the boards, but it was by only a 36-32 margin in a game where the Falcons took 12 more shots. The second-chance points were skewed just 15-12 in Nevada’s favor, a margin the Falcons would take any day.
Junior Kayla Pilson led the way with 10 rebounds as part of a double-double that also included 10 points.
She was one of five Falcons to score in double figures. Sophomore Madison Smith had 16, McDonald scored 15 and freshmen Milahnie Perry and Faith Shelton each had 10.
“Don’t ask me why it took us a little while to come back around to who we needed to be,” Gobrecht said. “It makes such a difference when you have five people trying to score the ball. That was really what was noticeable.
"We talked about how important it is. Even if you’re not the one who scores, the fact that you are trying to score and are acting that aggressively and moving with that authority, it’s going to give somebody else an opportunity.”
As the No. 7 seed, Air Force (13-16, 8-9 MW) can't meet up with unbeaten-in-conference-play UNLV, which has the top-seed secured, until the championship game. A loss Saturday to Nevada (17-12, 6-11) would have left the Falcons as the likely No. 8 seed, meaning the Rebels would have been the Day 2 draw should Air Force advance beyond the play-in day.
“Just for the mindset, no question,” Gobrecht said of the difference in being distanced from UNLV, which beat the Falcons by 41 points, while the average margin of defeat in the other conference losses has been 5.4 points. “It makes you feel like, 'OK, let’s see how far we can take this.'”
But this win wasn’t secured until late. The Falcons surged in front by 16 points in the third quarter, but Nevada pulled to within 7 with 4:35 remaining.
Then McDonald hit three straight shots, and a weight was lifted for the day — and maybe for the back-half of the season.
“It was fun,” said McDonald, who was honored before the game along with fellow senior Kamri Heath. “I was in the moment.”