A glimmer of hope on a brutal afternoon for Air Force basketball.
With a little over 11 minutes left in a thrilling and eventually devastating basketball struggle with Army, Air Force center Ryan Swan pulled in a pass near the basket and spun quickly away from the clutches of defender Matt Wilson.
Swan arrived at the baseline to find double coverage, but when he was spinning he already had devised a plan. He fired a left-handed pass to Sid Tomes, wide open at the 3-point line.
Boom. A 3-pointer. A roar from the crowd. A big wow from an impressed columnist. And an eight-point Air Force lead that soon would vanish.
The sequence revealed Swan and his wide variety of tricks. He could become one of the Mountain West’s premier players. He could lead an Air Force basketball revival, perhaps as soon as January.
He could help the program shake memories of Saturday’s brutal defeat. The Falcons led by 17 at halftime, but a combination of Air Force’s baffling lethargy and Army’s inspiring energy led to a 66-61 defeat. It was the Black Knights’ fifth straight win over the Falcons.
Swan could do a long list of valuable things for a team that badly needs everything on that list. He could, that is, if his back heals. He’s been struggling with lower-back pain, which can be seen most clearly as he struggles down the court. He brushes off questions about the injury, saying he’s close to 100 percent.
But he’s nowhere close to 100 percent.
He’s a basketball craftsman, taught by a mother and big sister who both played college basketball at the highest levels, but pain limits his ability to practice his craft.
If healthy, and that remains a big if, Swan could carry this edition of the Falcons to respectability in this season’s Mountain West race. He’s one of the most talented and most polished big men ever to compete for the academy.
“I think he’s good, really good,” Army coach Jimmy Allen says.
Swan, Allen says, can drop 3s and drive through crowds to the basket and throw no-look assists. Not many college centers combine all those gifts.
These Falcons have seldom soared to their potential. In Saturday’s first half, Air Force was soaring and the Black Knights were reeling. Host Air Force grabbed a 17-point lead.
Swan says the Falcons remembered last season’s humiliating loss to Army at Madison Square Garden. In the first half, those hurt feelings fueled a 20-minute rampage.
“We came out with a chip on our shoulder,” Swan says. “We came out swinging. We felt we had nothing to lose. It was a really good half. We were moving the ball. We were outrunning them.”
It was one of the better halves of the Dave Pilipovich era. It was a look at a team that boasts the talent to flirt with a .500 record in the Mountain West.
The second half delivered 20 of the worst minutes of the Pilipovich era. The Falcons missed 12 of 17 free throws and bumbled to 11 turnovers and allowed point guard Tommy Funk to dance free in the lane.
This could be a loss that destroys a season. Or, it could be loss that inspires a surge. The players will decide between those options.
Swan and the Falcons play only two games before a Jan. 2 home conference game against New Mexico. This will give him time to heal and the Falcons time to examine the disaster that was Saturday’s game.
In the second half, the Falcons’ offense lacked a unifying focus.
No one seized control of the attack.
Swan should become the unifier and the focus. If healthy and if given the chance, he can carry this sagging team to brighter days in 2019.