LAS VEGAS • Air Force arrived a little late to the party, but it earned the right to stay another day.
The sixth-seeded Falcons watched as upset-minded No. 11 San Jose State scored the game’s first 13 points. But Chris Joyce and Ryan Swan led the way in restoring order.
By the end of the first half the Falcons had turned that deficit into an 11-point lead, and they had no further difficulties down the stretch in completing an 87-56 blowout in this first-round game of the Mountain West Tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center on UNLV’s campus.
Joyce finished with 20 points and four assists, and it was his three-point play on a drive that snapped San Jose State’s 13-0 run to start the game. Swan had 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting to go with eight rebounds and played a key role in limiting San Jose State big man Michael Steadman to just one point after he had averaged 22.5 points in two previous games against Air Force this season.
Air Force (14-17) plays No. 3 Fresno State at 9:30 p.m. Thursday in the quarterfinals. The Falcons have never advanced to the semifinals and now draw a Bulldogs squad it defeated on the road 64-61 in the lone meeting this season.
“It would mean a lot,” Swan said. “But I’m not trying to just go to the semifinals. We didn’t come out here just to say we played in the semifinals.”
In the opening moments, even the quarterfinals seemed an iffy proposition.
San Jose State (4-27) made its first five shots, including 3-pointers on the first three possessions and went up 13-0 after just 3 minutes, 17 seconds.
“Confidence was sky high at that point,” said freshman Seneca Knight, who scored 15 points for the Spartans.
But then the Falcons answered with a 15-0 run and never trailed again.
“I think tonight was really the epitome of our team,” San Jose State coach Jean Prioleau said. “We are an inconsistent team.”
Air Force put its foot down thanks to a 12-0 advantage on second-chance points — aided by a 45-28 rebounding margin and 11-2 lead on the offensive boards — and a 16-5 edge on points off turnovers.
“I don’t know, if we play this game in November or early December, if we come back from 13-0,” Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said. “But we’ve grown. … We’ve gotten better. We have gotten ownership of this team.”
The victory is the third in the past five years for the Falcons at the conference tournament, where they are 5-19 all-time. This will be their 17th appearance in the quarterfinals, where they have never won.
Air Force was admittedly uncomfortable in its role as a favorite on Wednesday. This was the first time it had played as a higher seed in a Mountain West Tournament game since 2007, and the first time it had won in that role after four losses.
“Many years we never packed a light jersey,” Pilipovich said.
But now the Falcons return to their preferred position of the stubborn, loose underdog. And they adopted the persona immediately after dispatching of the Spartans.
“Could have been,” Joyce said when asked if his career-high 20-point effort was his best game for Air Force. “Hopefully my best game is tomorrow. That would be better.
“Or on Saturday.”