While San Diego State’s Jalen McDaniels was testing his NBA draft stock with workouts for scouts last spring, Ryan Swan was leaving for Air Force operations at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
This disparity is nothing unusual for the cadets as they navigate life in the Mountain West, but it does underscore the spectacular and unexpected nature of Air Force’s 62-48 undressing of the Aztecs at Clune Arena on Saturday.
The Falcons’ defense held San Diego State to 14 points in the first half.
Swan and Air Force outrebounded McDaniels and the much-taller visitors 39-33. Eleven of those were on the offensive end, leading to a 17-10 edge in second-chance points. The Falcons blocked two shots, while the Aztecs had none.
To put that in perspective, last year in two meetings San Diego State used its NBA size and athleticism to outrebound Air Force by 13, outscore it by 12 on second-chance points and block 12 shots.
Swan had four offensive rebounds in the first half as the Falcons — losers of 5 of 6 overall and 9 of 10 in this series — built a 16-point lead.
“I think it was important,” said Swan of his start in a game he posted 15 points and 15 rebounds, “because it gave us the confidence that, OK, they might be big, they might be tall and they may be working out for the NBA, but we can hang with them. We can get offensive boards and do everything people say we can’t. So I think it was definitely a confidence booster.”
McDaniels, the 6-foot-10 likely future pro, finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Lavelle Scottie joined Swan in posting a double-double for Air Force (6-10, 1-3 Mountain West), as he scored 16 points with 11 rebounds.
But Scottie and Swan have been doing this — or something a little like it — most of the season as the juniors are the established leaders on this team.
What was different Saturday was the defensive effort that limited the Aztecs (9-7, 1-2) to 38 percent shooting after the past two opponents had shot 56.6 percent (Colorado State) and 55.8 percent (Utah State) in lopsided wins.
“We guarded and we played hard and we were on the floor,” coach Dave Pilipovich said. “We were Air Force, and that was fun to watch. Wow. That was good.”
The other key difference was the performance of freshman guard A.J. Walker, who scored a game-high 19 points with three steals, two assists and just one turnover in 33 minutes.
The Falcons needed someone to complement Scottie and Swan, and they got it in a game-changing way.
“We needed this,” Walker said. “It was big. It was fun.”
It almost wasn’t.
That first-half lead nearly disappeared, with San Diego State clawing to within four points at 48-44 with 5:41 left.
Pilipovich said he was beginning to see “Army” on the Aztecs’ jerseys, referring to a 17-point advantage his team squandered on this floor against its rival in December.
But Keaton Van Soelen’s jumper put the Falcons up by six, then Walker hit a pair of shots that stretched the lead back to double digits.
“Sometimes before you have some success you’ve got to experience some failure and some discomfort, and some disappointment,” Pilipovich said. “We had that. They wouldn’t let it happen this time.”
This was far from a perfect performance for Air Force, which shot just 39 percent. But it was exactly what this team needed, not only a victory but to face an athletic team (picked to finish second in the conference) and beat it and its press at its own scrappy game.
“We’ve just got to stay healthy and keep working hard, and who knows?” Pilipovich said. “Maybe we’re starting to put it together.”