Posted: Mar 10, 2010 9:36 PM
LAS VEGAS (AP) - The Air Force Falcons are getting good at play-in games. Now, they'd love to parlay that into an upset of top-seeded New Mexico. For the second straight season, the ninth-seeded Falcons won in the opening round of the Mountain West Conference tournament, beating Wyoming 59-40 Wednesday.
Last year they snapped a 17-game losing streak with a win over Colorado State in the tournament opener.
This time they snapped a nine-game skid.
They also beat Wyoming on Jan. 30, which ended a league-record 22-game regular-season conference losing streak.
A date with eighth-ranked New Mexico (28-3) on Thursday.
While the Falcons have endured a couple of lean years, they did give the Lobos a scare Feb. 20, when they lost 59-56 at the Pit in Albuquerque. That followed a 23-point loss to New Mexico at home a month earlier.
"Well, we definitely know we can play with them. We showed that at their place," said Grant Parker, who led the Falcons with 15 points Wednesday. "This is just a great chance to come out and compete with them again. We know we can do it. It's a lot like BYU last year. We competed with them at their place, played 'em really tough in the tournament.
"So, we plan on doing that this year _ except just coming out with a win." Todd Fletcher, who added 11 points for Air Force, including a key three-point play that stemmed the Cowboys' last-gasp charge in the closing minutes, said the Falcons can upset the Lobos "as long as we control the game."
"We don't want to get up and down with them," he said.
Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds realizes a repeat of his close call at the Pit won't come easy.
"As I've said, being from the state of North Carolina, growing up in ACC country, people don't realize how good Mountain West basketball is. They don't understand the venues that make up the league. And the Pit may be the toughest place in the country," Reynolds suggested. "It's close. I've been fortunate enough to play at Rupp, at Duke, fortunate to coach at the Dean Dome. The Pit and their fans, they challenge you. And I thought our kids showed great leadership. They showed tenacity.
"This game is going to be a little different tomorrow," Reynolds added. "We had a week off to prepare for New Mexico prior to that game. Coach (Steve) Alford had a week off to prepare for us. So it will be a challenge. They're very, very talented." The Lobos certainly won't be looking at this matchup as a gimme.
"Air Force has a way of slowing it down," Lobos guard Dairese Gary said. "They have a lot of patience on the offensive end. They run the shot clock down, then they look for the best shot possible."
Plus, the Lobos have been one-and-done in the MWC tournament four years in a row.
"I haven't won a game here," New Mexico senior Roman Martinez said. "And it's important to focus on that first game to get to the next game."
At least Alford could tell pretty early on Wednesday which team he'd be playing _ Air Force built a 32-21 halftime lead and never trailed in the second half. The eighth-seeded Cowboys (10-21), who got 18 points from Desmar Jackson and 12 from Adam Waddell, cut their deficit to 47-40 on Waddell's basket with 5½ minutes left. But the Falcons responded with a bucket by Parker and a three-point play by Fletcher that ignited a 12-0 run to end it.
The Cowboys didn't grab a single offensive rebound in the first half. Reynolds said the Falcons were fortunate that Wyoming guard JayDee Luster's nagging groin injury prevented him from playing.
"They weren't able to push their transition nearly as quickly, and we were able to make them have to attack our halfcourt defense," Reynolds said. "We were fortunate to only give up three offensive rebounds. That was a real key for us today, was to keep them off the glass."
Cowboys coach Heath Schroyer wouldn't use Luster's absence as an excuse. "We've kind of had to deal with that all year," Schroyer said. "But at the end of the day I think that they made some tough shots."
Adding injury to insult, Waddell was struck in the face and missed the final few minutes.
"Yeah, he broke his nose," Schroyer said. "Isn't that just par for the course? So he's getting it set right now."