Your Air Force Falcons Run to the NCAA's - The 2003-2004 Basketball Season was a historic run to the NCAA's for Air Force.  Know your history - Read the game by game stories on the Falcons run though the MWC league play culminating in playing UNC during March Madness.  Courtesy of the writers from the Colorado Springs Gazette Newspaper, these are the actual articles following each game between January - March 2004.  Enjoy....  

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Air Force 65, Colorado State 57

Rare silence of the Rams

AFA win ends
27-game MWC road losing skid




   FORT COLLINS - Colorado State’s fans were on their feet for the start of the second half of Air Force’s 65-57 win over the Rams on Monday, filling Moby Arena with a roar that had always meant doom for the Falcons.
   Air Force sophomore guard Antoine Hood didn’t like what he heard.
   After back-to-back baskets by
Colorado State’s Ronnie Clark raised the decibel level a few more notches, Hood calmly stroked a 3-pointer from just in front of Air Force’s bench.
   He then ran to center court, looked at the crowd and waived his right finger in front of his mouth.
   He wanted quiet.
   “I got a little caught up in the moment. I kind of tried to silence the crowd,” said Hood, who scored 10 points, but none bigger than that 3-pointer
2:47 into the second half. “The coaching staff didn’t appreciate that too much, but you play for the moment.”
   Monday was Air Force’s moment. Time and again, Air Force silenced
Colorado State’s 4,012 fans en route to the Falcons’ first road conference win in four years. Whether it was free throws by leading scorer Tim Keller (15 points), a 3-point play by A.J. Kuhle, or a 3-pointer by Joel Gerlach, Air Force answered every Colorado State run — and a few lingering questions about the legitimacy of the Falcons’ school-record start — to emerge from Fort Collins with a milestone win.
   Air Force’s victory ended a 27-game road conference losing streak, and it was the Falcons’ first in
Fort Collins since 1991.
   Air Force’s eighth straight win also tied a school record that dated to 1959.
   “It’s a big win,” said Air Force coach Joe Scott, whose teams had never won a road conference game since he arrived in the fall of 2000. “I told our team after the game that either way, whatever hap- pened tonight, it was going to be blown out of proportion: us winning and getting a road win, and it’s, ‘Hey this Air Force team is different.’ Us losing, they were going to say, ‘Same old Air Force.’ ”
   It was the same old Air Force, but with a twist.
   The Falcons (10-2, 1-0 Moun tain West ) weren’t spectacular, but were deliberate enough on offense and stingy enough on defense to make the Rams (8-6, 0-1) wish 7-foot center Matt Nelson (sprained right knee) and starting guard Michael Morris (hamstring) were in the game.
   Air Force jumped to a 30-20 halftime lead, exploiting Colorado State’s haphazard zone defense. The Falcons answered every run by the Rams in the second half, succeeding where past Air Force teams had failed, often turning to seniors Kuhle (season-highs of 14 points and seven rebounds) and Gerlach (11 points).
   Kuhle converted a threepoint play after Coloraod State cut Air Force’s lead to 40-35 in the second half. Minutes after the Rams trimmed Air Force’s lead to 43-39 with 7:07 remaining on a pair of free-throws by Matt Williams, Gerlach came up big.
   After Hood scored on a three-point play, Gerlach knocked down a 3-pointer and a pair of free-throws to help extend the Falcons’ lead to 51-39 with 4:40 left.


   AIR FORCE: Kuhle 4-7 5-7 14, Gerlach 3-7 2-2 11, Welch 3-7 6-8 12, Keller 3-7 8-10 15, Hood
3-4 2-4 10, McCraw 0-1 0-0 0, Burt schi 1-3 1-2
3, Peterson 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 17-37 24-33 65.
   COLORADO ST.: Clark 5-10 2-3 12, Williams 6-8
5-8 17, Stevens 4-7 0-0 10, Rakie cki 0-3 4-4 4,
Johnson 3-4 0-0 8, Boatner 0-1 0-0 0, Thomasson 0-2 0-0 0, Robinson 2-3 0-0 6, Verwers 0-1
0-0 0. Totals 20-39 1 1-15 57.
   Halftime — Air Force 30, Colorado St. 20. 3-Point goals — Air Force 7-16 (Gerlach 3-5, Hood 2-3, Kuhle 1-1, Keller 1-4, Welch 0-1,
Burt schi 0-2), Colorado St. 6-14 (Stevens 2-5,
Johnson 2-3, Robinson 2-3, Rakie cki 0-3). Fouled out — Clark, Williams. Rebounds — Air Force 19 (Kuhle 7), Colorado St. 29 (Williams 8). Assists — Air Force 13 (Kuhle 4), Colorado
St. 10 (Clark 2, Stevens 2, Johnson 2, Robinson 2). Total fouls — Air Force 18, Colorado St. 28. A — 4,012





1/18/04 Air Force 68, New Mexico 42


Falcons end four decades of futility in Albuquerque




   ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Nick Welch seemed to pause for a moment after each of his second-half 3-pointers, his right hand hanging in the air, his mouth agape for an extra beat as each of his four long-range daggers found their mark.
   Air Force’s sophomore center wasn’t posing, but the entire Air Force team deserved to take a bow after Saturday’s 68-42 Moun tain West Confer ence thrashing of New Mexico before a seasonhigh 18,018 fans.
   New Mexico’s faithful packed The Pit, but only saw their Lobos get pummeled and Air Force make history for the second time in a week.
   Welch scored 16 of his careerhigh 18 points in the second half, including four straight 3-pointers that sparked a 15-2 run and helped seal the Falcons’ first win in Albuquerque in 42 years.
   Each 3-pointer was followed by Welch’s hand held high in the air, a subconscious signal to the rest of the conference that this Falcons’ team isn’t just a scrappy bunch of smart players happy with a few upsets.
   “It’s impressive to do what we did here,” coach Joe Scott said. “In college basketball , when you read the name that is on our jersey and what our program has been like, and you look at the name that is on their jersey and this building, it’s a celebrated place and a celebrated program. To come in here and play the way we did says volumes about our players.”
   The Falcons (11-2) moved to 2-0 in the Mountain West for the first time in history five days after picking up their first road conference win in more than four years.
   The Falcons’ ninth straight win also broke a 45-year-old school record, and Saturday’s victory was the team’s first in the 38-year history of the Pit.
   It was Air Force’s second-largest conference win behind a 28-point home win against San Diego State in 1995, the fourthworst loss in the history of the Pit, and the second worst conference loss for the Lobos (9-6, 0-2).
   The Falcons forced 17 turnovers, held the Lobos to 36.8 percent shooting, and were precise and methodical on offense, mirroring similar performances by the Falcons’ opponents.
   New Mexico came as close as 26-20 in the first half before the Falcons closed with a 8-3 run to make the score 34-23, and never had a chance in the second half once Welch got going.
   At times, the Lobos looked confused. Perhaps they were shocked things were so easy for Air Force, or shocked Welch was making his wide-open 3-point attempts.
   But as Welch watched each sail through the net, he wasn't shocked at all.
   “It’s just holding my followthrough and making sure it’s a good shot, to make sure I am going into the basket,” Welch said. “(Assistant coach Chris Mooney) tells me it’s like shooting in the park. It’s an easy shot.”




1/25/4 Air Force 74, Brigham Young 52


Craziness at Clune


Wild crowd helps power Falcons’ 11th straight win




   The record crowd of 6,359 that packed Clune Arena on Saturday roared, sophomore center Nick Welch scored, and for a time, it was hard to hear the ball hit the court in the sold-out gymnasium.
   But perhaps the loudest sound was the statement Air Force made with its 74-52 beating of BYU.
   “I know everybody in the country was watching today to see what we were going to do,” Air Force coach Joe Scott said, “and to perform like this — I think we let everyone in America know that right now, at this juncture in the college basket ball season, this is one of the best teams in America — bar none.”
   Thanks, in part, to a careerhigh 20 points by Welch, the Falcons improved to 3-0 in the Mountain West Conference for the first time, and continued to build on their school-record, 13-2 start. Air Force has won 11 straight games.
   The Falcons left no doubt with this win — the team’s largest against BYU — leading wire-to-wire against a team picked to win the conference title.
   Air Force jumped to a 12-2 lead, and the Cougars (12-5, 2-2) never came within seven points after the 8:14 mark of the first half.
   A dunk and a reverse layup by sophomore guard Antoine Hood gave the Falcons a 42-19 lead at halftime.
   “The excitement is indescribable,” Hood said. “This place got louder than (New Mexico’s) The Pit in some aspects. This place was rocking and we couldn’t hear anything.”
   Welch kept the decibel level up, dominating center Rafael Araujo with a series of spin moves, reverse layups and pinpoint shooting.
   Welch, who gave up three inches and nearly 80 pounds to the 6-foot-11, 280-pound Brazilian, made 9 of 10 field-goal attempts one week after being named the conference player of the week for his 18-point performance against New Mexico.
   But it wasn’t all Welch. The Falcons shot 72.5 percent from the field — the second-best mark in school history behind a 75 percent shooting performance in 1997 versus NAIA opponent Doane. Air Force also went 9 of 16 from 3-point range Saturday.
   Senior guard A.J. Kuhle chipped in with 14 points, junior guard Tim Keller had 12 and Hood scored 11.
   “It wasn’t like it was me versus Araujo,” Welch said. “It was Air Force versus BYU and every guy on our team played well today.”
   Air Force held Araujo, who entered the game as the conference’s leading scorer and rebounder, to 12 points and six rebounds. BYU committed 13 turnovers and shot 43.2 percent from the field.
   “We got beat in every aspect of the game,” coach Steve Cleveland said.
   “Every offensive statistic to defensive statistic, they took it to us from the beginning and we never really regrouped and you got to give them a great deal of credit.”
   CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0256 or
On a role

   Freshman guard Matt Mc-Craw’s favorite NBA player may be Ray Allen, but he’s not afraid to admit his game is a little more like Bobby Jackson.
   Like the Sacramento Kings sixth man, McCraw provided a much-needed spark off the bench, making a career-high three 3-pointers and tying a career-high with 11 points.
   “My role is just coming off the bench and doing all the little things and everything, starting on defense, and whatever happens on offense happens,” he said.


   BYU: Hall 0-3 2-2 2, Bigelow 6-10 6-8 19, Araujo 4-5 4-6 12, Leme s 1-4 1-4 3, Nashif 1-2 0-0 2, Woodberry 0-2 0-0 0, Rose 2-7 3-3 9,
Shof f 0-0 0-0 0, Ainge 0-1 0-0 0, Me ads 2-3 1-1 5. Totals 16-37 17-24 52.
   AIR FORCE: Kuhle 4-5 4-4 14, Gerlach 2-3 1-1 5, Welch 9-10 0-3 20, Keller 4-9 2-3 12, Hood
5-7 0-1 1 1, McCraw 0-0 0-0 0, Jenkins 2-2 0-0 5, Dillinger 1-1 0-0 2, Burt schi 1-2 0-0 2, Teet s
0-0 0-0 0, Nwaelele 0-0 0-0 0, Peterson 0-0 0-0 0, Bu chanan 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 29-40 7-12 74.
   Halftime — Air Force 42, BYU 19. 3-Point goals — BYU 3-14 (Rose 2-7, Bigelow 1-3, Leme s 0-1, Nashif 0-1, Woodberry 0-1, Ainge 0-1), Air Force 9-16 (Kuhle 2-2, Welch 2-2, Keller 2-5,
Hood 1-3, Jenkins 1-1, Bu chanan 1-1, Gerlach 0-1, Burt schi 0-1). Rebounds — BYU 20 (Araujo 6), Air Force 20 (Gerlach 4, Welch 4). Assists — BYU 6 (Hall 2, Leme s 2), Air Force 17 (Welch 5). Total fouls — BYU 18, Air Force 16. A — 6,359.



1/27/04 Air Force 62, Utah 49


Taking them by storm


Falcons top another Mountain West rival




   Air Force’s fans hadn’t stormed the Clune Arena court in recent memory.
   The Air Force men’s basket ball team had never given them a reason.
   The Falcons’ run through the Mountain West Confer ence continued Monday with a 62-49 win over Utah before a crowd of 5,788 happy to break plenty of rules and hop the railings at Clune to join the Falcons in a half-court celebration.
   Air Force has never been 14-2 to start a season, ruled the Mountain West at 4-0 or won 12 straight games.
   “You only see that on TV, fans rushing the court like that,” sophomore guard Antoine Hood said. “Words can’t describe how great that was.”
   Air Force didn’t blow out Utah like it blew out BYU or knock the Utes around like the Falcons kicked around New Mexico.
   This was a different kind of win, against a different kind of opponent.
   Air Force beat Utah, the team by which Joe Scott has measured his program, despite blowing a second-half lead. Instead, the Falcons fought back and took control down the stretch.
   “I think my guys have been watching for three years and learning, and we were able to play just like Utah did,” Scott said. “. . . (Utah) is the measuring stick in this league. Who knows if we have caught up with them, but I know we are going to be in this thing until the end now and I am almost certain Utah will be, too.”
   The Falcons made their first four shots to jump to a 9-0 lead, but by halftime, Utah had cut Air Force’s lead to 29-24.
   Ten minutes into the second half, Utah (15-5, 3-2) took a 40-38 advantage on a 3-pointer by Richard Chaney. But at a time where Air Force teams of the past might have folded, this one surged behind senior A.J. Kuhle, who scored a season-high 17 points.
   “If we play well it’s hard for me to think we are going to lose a game,” Kuhle said. “When everyone is hitting on all cylinders and playing well it spurs all of us on. We know every guy on the court can make a play that could possibly win us a game.”
   Air Force tied the game 40-40 on a pair of free throws by Tim Keller (16 points) one minute after Utah had grabbed its only lead of the game. The Falcons regained the lead for good on a layup by Keller with 8:15 remaining.
   Air Force outscored Utah 22-9 over the final nine minutes. Kuhle helped put the Utes away, grabbing a key offensive rebound and converting it to a three-point play. He scored nine and Air Force’s last 11 points.
   “He was just all over the place and his play down the stretch sort of epitomized sort of what this team is all about right now,” Scott said.



2/1/4 Air Force 57, San Diego State 43


Falcons sputter early but finish with flurry




   SAN DIEGO - Air Force’s shots weren’t falling and its offense wasn’t clicking. As San Diego State’s Tommy Johnson swooped through the lane for an easy layup, the season-high crowd of 11,027 at Cox Arena began to sense an upset.
   Air Force had been here before, so why worry, thought Antoine Hood.
   “We try to dissect teams with our offense and our defense. They get a run, we like to silence the crowd,” he said.
   The Falcons did that, recovering from a slow start to beat the Aztecs, 57-43, Saturday. But the win hardly followed the Falcons’ usual blueprint for success.
   The Falcons may have won their 13th straight game and clinched their first winning record since 1978, but they fell behind early, looked sloppy and unsure at times. In short, they were the very opposite of their normal selves.
   But when it counted most, the Falcons (15-2, 5-0) calmly acted every bit like the Mountain West’s first-place team, answering every run with a crowd-silencing counterpunch and stifling the Aztecs’ high-scoring offense.
   Hood scored a team-high 15 points and Nick Welch had 11 points and six rebounds.
   “Each time that team did something that said, ‘Hey, it’s our home court, we are going to take control of the game,’ we answered it and we answered it big down the stretch,” Air Force coach Joe Scott said.
   After losing an early 18-13 lead, San Diego State (11-9, 2-3) last tied the game at 32-32 8:18 into the second half as junior guard Wesley Stokes (12 points) whipped the crowd into another frenzy with a slick finger roll.
   Air Force’s answer came from seniors A.J. Kuhle and Jacob Burtschi, who buried back-to-back 3-pointers to push the Falcons lead to 38-32.
   Air Force never looked back, the memory of the Falcons’ worst start in a conference game this season a distant memory.
   Air Force’s 12 turnovers were its most in conference play and its 45.2 shooting percentage was its worst in the MWC as well. The Falcons’ opened the game 2 of 11 from 3-point range.
   But as the Falcons struggled, the Aztecs looked even worse against Air Force’s top-ranked scoring defense.
   San Diego State’s 43 points were a season-low, and the second-lowest in Cox Arena history. The Aztecs committed 19 turnovers, and their two leading scorers, freshman Brandon Heath and senior Aerick Sanders, were held to zero and four points, respectively.
   “You go through those things, and that’s why you have to play good defense because it makes you weather those storms like that,” Scott said.
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2/4/4  Falcons stinging from loss


Kuhle accepts blame for teams play at UNLV




   LAS VEGAS - Coach Joe Scott laid the blame for Air Force’s 63-50 loss to UNLV late Monday squarely on his upperclassmen.
   And senior A.J. Kuhle took it.
   “It’s my fault,” Kuhle said. “As a senior leader, when we came out 11-2, we just really took it for granted that we got up that quick and when they put some pressure on us, we didn’t respond.”
   After jumping to an 11-2 lead that almost seemed to come too easily, all of Air Force’s players didn’t do much of anything Monday.
   That’s why the Falcons were serenaded with a chorus of “overrated” chants from hundreds of UNLV fans as the last seconds ticked off the game clock.
   There was no response as the Falcons (15-3 overall, 5-1 Mountain West ) left the court at the Thomas & Mack Center with their heads hanging. They drew attention not for a record-setting start but for their frustratingly lethargic performance that was broadcast nationwide on ESPN’s Big Monday.
   In its first loss since Dec. 7, Air Force was outworked on rebounds, 41-20. The Falcons didn’t hustle, and didn’t have an answer for UNLV’s uptempo play. They also eschewed their deliberate offense for a more selfish style after jumping to an early lead.
   And if they want to remain atop the Mountain West , which they did despite the loss, they’ll have to figure out why.
   “They were quicker to the ball than us,” Scott said. “They wanted the ball more than we did. That’s what’s disappointing to me. That’s not skills. That’s guts and courage and wanting the ball.”
   The loss didn’t especially hurt the Falcons in the standings. They still have a onegame lead on Utah (16-5, 4-2), and have exceeded the most optimistic expectations in this young season.
   Air Force can rebound and win the league, and can recover to qualify for a postseason tournament.
   But the loss did raise several questions as the Falcons return home for three confer ence games, namely: Which team will appear at Clune Arena on Saturday against Wyoming?
   “We are going to go back this week and work on individual type stuff and defensive stuff and really kind of see what team we got here,” junior Tim Keller said. “Wyoming coming in here, that will be a good judge to see if it was just a lucky run or we are a good team.”
   Scott thinks he’s got a good team — when it plays the precise and deliberate style that can overwhelm teams on offense and infuriate them on defense.
   But when the Falcons sleepwalk through a game like they did Monday, giving out rebounds like they were forking over money to a casino on the strip, the result will be typical.
   “That’s a blueprint for everybody: Be aggressive, go after the ball, hustle,” Scott said. “When you play that way, you win more times than you lose, and they played that way (Monday) and we didn’t.”



Air Force 83, Wyoming 71 2/8/4


No Vegas hangover


AFA returns to
form following
first MWC loss




In Air Force’s season-long statement to the Mountain West Confer ence, Wyoming was a footnote Saturday.
   The Falcons steamrolled the Cowboys in an 83-71 win before a crowd of 5,939 at Clune Arena.
   Once again, the Falcons answered any questions after a loss to UNLV on Monday.
   “Nobody questions teams like St. Joseph’s and Duke and Stanford,” said sophomore guard Antoine Hood, who had 14 points. “Everyone knows they are going to bounce back after a loss. We knew that we could bounce back, and that’s what we were going to come out and do today.”
   The Falcons (16-3, 6-1 MWC) proved their 13-game winning streak that ended against UNLV was not a fluke.
   “I think the rest of the league is still looking to see if Air Force is for real,” Falcons coach Joe Scott said.
   The Falcons ended an eightgame losing streak to Wyoming (9-11, 2-5), and remained undefeated at home this season to tie a school record. At the midway point of conference play, Air Force has tied a Mountain West record with a 6-1 start.
   Utah was 6-1 in 2000 and 2002.
   “It’s just a statement,” said senior forward Joel Gerlach, who made a career-high four 3-pointers and finished with 14 points.
   “That team comes in here and they think they are better than us and we got to prove that we are a team, a 16-3 team that can play and defend their home court,” Gerlach said.
   Air Force hadn’t beaten the Cowboys since Feb. 5, 2000, and none of the Falcons’ current players had ever beaten Wyoming, but that didn’t seem to matter.
   Air Force shot 66.7 percent from the field and five players scored in double figures, led by Tim Keller’s season-high 20 points.
   Air Force took a 36-27 lead at halftime, but Wyoming got as close as 48-46 when Falconkiller Jay Straight’s 4-point play capped a 10-0 run with 12:48 remaining. But when the Falcons needed it most, they made a statement to themselves.
   Sophomore center Nick Welch scored eight of the Falcons’ next 10 points to help stretch the lead to 58-53, and Air Force made 22 of 25 free throws down the stretch.
   “That’s when we played our best basketball of the night,” Scott said. “The closer they got, then we played our best defense. We ran our offense the best. We pulled away.”
   The Falcons committed a season-high 15 turnovers, and yielded a season-high 71 points.
   The Falcons were outrebounded 29-20, and allowed the Cowboys to grab 19 offensive rebounds.
   None of that mattered, however. The victory wasn’t pretty, but it was another answer.
   “We have been struggling with them for a long time,” Hood said, “and it feels good to come back and send a statement to them that we are different.”



Air Force 52, Colorado State 44   2/10/4


Only ugly if you lose


Falcons play at
CSU’s plodding
style but prevail




   As Air Force finished off Colorado State Monday, putting the final touches on a 52-44 Moun tain West win, coach Joe Scott crouched on the sidelines, a scowl on his face.
   Monday’s season sweep of Colorado State in front of 5,763 fans at Clune Arena was hardly a masterpiece.
   But like a fine work of art, this milestone win will likely age well.
   All that will matter in time — and all that mattered to Scott Monday was the victory, the Falcons’ 17th this season, tying a 46-year-old school record.
   Air Force (17-3 overall, 7-1 MWC) also set school records for most conference wins in a season and consecutive home wins (10) while keeping one game ahead of Utah in the Mountain West .
   “If you are going to win a title you’ve got to win games like this because they are going to happen,” Scott said. “You just don’t win titles by sort of blowing teams away.”
   Wins like this — where the Falcons shot a seasonlow 36.6 percent, were outrebounded 33-23 by a Colorado State team without injured center Matt Nelson, and nearly squandered a 13-point halftime lead — might be more accurately described by Air Force’s players.
   “No question it was ugly,” said sophomore center Nick Welch, who scored 16 points and had five rebounds and five assists.
   “It was disgusting. It was tough. We were getting run up and down the court,” said forward Tim Keller (17 points), whose four first-half 3-pointers helped stake Air Force to a 30-17 halftime lead.
   Scott had been waiting for Keller to break out of a shooting slump, and the junior made three consecutive 3-pointers during a 1:37 span in the first half.
   “The fact the ball went in it was amazing,” Keller said. “I felt good. Shooting the ball, I have been kind of off and on, but getting in the swing of the offense felt good. It’s how the offense is supposed to work.”
   But nothing worked in the second half for the Falcons.
   After halftime, the Falcons allowed the Rams (11-10, 3-5) to claw their way back by shooting 26.3 percent.
   During an 11-minute stretch, Air Force scored six points, and the Falcons’ lead dwindled to 45-41 when Phillip Thomasson hit a jumper with 2:42 remaining.
   Freddy Robinson scored 13 of his team-high 15 points in the second half, but Air Force made 7 of 8 freethrows down the stretch, including six by Welch.
   “You play a team like Colorado State and they want to make it ugly,” Welch said. “That’s the way it played out. Down the stretch it got a little bit close there, and everybody stepped up and made a huge play.”



Falcon freshman steals the show with his acting

Gazette Sports columnist

   Air Force freshman Jacob Burtschi ranks as an expert in the art of basketball irritation.
   He flops to the wood, draws a charge. He dives to the floor just for fun, showing no regard for his 6-foot-6, 205-pound frame. He sets sturdy picks. He declines to worry about scoring points.
   Little basketball beauty emerged from Air Force’s 52-44 victory over Colorado State on Monday night in loud but not quite full Clune Arena.
   It was Burtschi’s kind of game. He scored six points, but disrupted the Rams with his rude, ruthless style.
   He arrived from the flatlands of Oklahoma, a rampaging competitor, a superb actor, a player who ignites his own team and infuriates the opposition.
   The Falcons are winning with Burtschi-style basketball . Air Force has soared to a 17-3 record — 7-1 in the Mountain West — by employing a strategy that is low on offense and high on oldfashioned virtues.
   Air Force, which has scored more than 65 points only seven times this season, shot 36.6 percent against the Rams, including a woeful 26 percent in the second half.
   Antoine Hood, offering a superb imitation of the Invisible Man, scored two points. A.J. Kuhle and Joel Gerlach combined for only nine.
   The Falcons won with stifling, swarming defense. They won because they drew more charges, dived for more loose balls.
   They won because, even with their rising national reputation, they played with snarling, elbowing desperation.
   Air Force coach Joe Scott raves about the Mountain West Conference with about half of his public statements. He has reason to compliment his competition: It increases the magnitude of his team’s transformation.
   But the truth is this: The Mountain West is a collection of middling, so-what teams this season. The talent level is down. The coaching expertise — with Utah’s Rick Majerus gone — has plummeted.
   Air Force is not a dazzling collection of talent. The Falcons boast a starting five that looks as if they’ve been put on a starvation diet. The Falcons lack a can’t-stop-me scorer who can carry the team in the final minutes.
   They win anyway. They win because players like Kuhle and Burtschi know the secrets of stealing games.
   Burtschi learned the secrets of basketball from his father, A.D., his coach during his high school career in Chickasha, Okla.
   Dad believed in playing the game all out, which meant a player could expect floor burns and bruised elbows and swollen eyes. Dad believed in playing with fierce emotion.
   He taught his son well.
   “I want to come out there with a lot of spirit,” Burtschi said. “I want to get the crowd into it, get the other players into it. I want to bring excitement to the game.”
   Part of the excitement comes from wondering when Burtschi will tumble to the floor. He has an uncanny ability to persuade officials to call offensive fouls, Sometimes, officials blow the whistle in Burtschi’s favor when nothing resembling a foul has occurred.
   That’s largely because of Burtschi’s acting skills, which are considerable. He flings himself to the floor with such violence, with such conviction, that an official can’t resist the temptation to blow the whistle.
   “Acting ability helps a lot,” Burtschi said. “You’ve got to get the referee to pay attention to what’s happening. You need to put a little bit of an acting job into it.”
   Scott enjoys watching the Burtschi show. Scott often glares at the floor in disbelief after one of his player’s mistakes, but he actually slips into a slight smile after Burtschi sneaks away with a steal or draws a charge.
   Scott agrees that acting is important while seeking a charging call.
   “This is a game of acting, there’s no question,” Scott says.
   “But I don’t think Burtschi is an actor at all.”
   Scott is wrong.
   Burtschi, a great actor, deserves an award for his wondrous performances.
Columnist David Ramsey can be
   reached at 476-4895 or



Air Force 51, New Mexico 50   2/15/4



Falcons wait
to exhale until buzzer sounds


Lobos’ last-ditch effort falls short




   Antoine Hood had done his part, making a free throw with 9.7 seconds left in Air Force’s 51-50 Mountain West Con ference win over New Mexico on Saturday.
   Then, like most of the 5,641 fans at Clune Arena, he held his breath.
   New Mexico’s leading scorer, Danny Granger, brought the ball up the court, and launched a 3-pointer with center Nick Welch in his face.
   The shot rattled off the back of the rim, New Mexico forward David Chiotti tipped the rebound to Troy Devries, and his desperation shot from the baseline clanged off the side of the backboard.
   Hood finally exhaled.
   “It seemed like a pretty long time there,” said Hood, who scored a gamehigh 16 points. “Made me hold my breath for a while there.”
   What had started so ugly for the Falcons; what had looked hopeless midway through the second half when Air Force trailed by seven points, turned out beautifully.
   Hood, Air Force’s resident yapper, struggled for words after the game.
   Granger, who had 15 points for New Mexico, was shocked at his team’s collapse.
   And Air Force’s stoic coach Joe Scott got emotional, wrapping his arms around senior Joel Gerlach.
   A postgame hug was certainly deserved.
   Thanks in part to several key plays by the senior forward, including a momentumchanging block of a dunk by Mark Walters with 2:14 left and a 3-pointer 26 seconds later, the Falcons (18-3, 8-1 MWC) won a school-record 18th game.
   “I was definitely fired up, ready to play,” said Gerlach, who scored 10 points.
   “This is the closest game we had and I wanted to come out on top.”
   Air Force maintained its one-game lead atop the Moun tain West over Utah while tying the conference record for best start.
   And the win came in considerably different fashion than the previous 17.
   The Falcons had won in routs, and they’d won ugly, but Saturday they proved they could win from behind.
   “It wasn’t like we made all our foul shots. It wasn’t like we played great, but . . . I thought we really came through late in the game,” Scott said.
   “That’s what a championship team has to do. And I am not saying that’s what’s going to happen (a championship), but I see some really good signs from our team.”
   Air Force had trailed for a total of 5:07 in its 10 previous home wins this season but rarely had any cushion Saturday.
   New Mexico (13-9, 4-5) made its first four shots jumping to an 8-0 lead, and with 11:23 left in the second, the Lobos led 41-34.
   But as foul-plagued New Mexico tried to stall, Air Force came alive, looking inside more than they had all game.
   Two free throws by Nick Welch with 3:45 left gave Air Force a 45-44 lead, and after four lead changes, Chiotti made 1 of 2 free throws to tie the game 50-50 with 33.2 seconds remaining.
   Hood was fouled as he tried to post up Devries with 9.7 seconds left. He made 1 of 2 free throws and then waited out the win.
   “This really is defining us as a team,” Hood said.
   “We have blown teams out at home, we won close when we beat Colorado State when we weren’t shooting that well. So now we proved we are really a well-rounded team. When we aren’t playing very well or shooting very well, we can still come together.”


   New Mexico (13-9): Ne ale 3-6 0-0 9, G ranger 6-8 2-2 15, Chiotti 4-8 4-5 12, DeV rie s 0-2 0-0 0, Tindall 3-5 0-0 9, Walters 0-5 2-2 2, Hart 1-1 0-0 3, Mile s 0-1 0-0. Totals 17-36 8-9 50.
   Air Force (18-3): Kuhle 1-5 1-3 4, Gerlach 3-7 2-4 10, Welch 4-8 2-2 12, Keller 2-5 2-5 7, Hood 5-6 4-6 16, Nwaelele 1-1 0-0 2, Bu chanan 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 16-33 1 1-20 51.
   Halftime — New Mexic o 27-26. 3-point goals —
New Mexic o 8-17 (Ne ale 3-5, G ranger 1-2,
DeV rie s 0-2, Tindall 3-5, Walters 0-1, Hart 1-1,
Mile s 0-1). Air Force 8-22 (Kuhle 1-4, Gerlach
2-6, Welch 2-5, Keller 1-3, Hood 2-3, Bu chanan 0-1). Fouled out — Ne ale. Rebounds — New
Mexic o 24 (Ne ale, G ranger 7), Air Force 18 (Welch 5). Assists — New Mexic o 10 (G ranger 3), Air Force 10 (Kuhle 5). Total fouls — New Mexic o 21, Air Force 13. Attendance — 5,641.



Texas-Pan American 37, Air Force 35


Air Force in utter disbelief 2/18/4


Desperate loss to Texas-Pan American shocks Falcons




   EDINBURG, Texas - Nick Welch sat in the stands at UTPA Fieldhouse following Air Force’s 37-35 nonconference loss to Texas-Pan American, his disbelieving eyes drifting toward the court.
   Minutes earlier, the sophomore center’s six-foot jump shot in the lane with 24 seconds remaining had rolled tantalizingly around the rim and out.
   And as A.J. Kuhle missed a desperation shot at the buzzer and the Broncs’ fans stormed the same court Welch was now staring at, he wanted it all back.
   Not just his missed shot. The entire night.
   Welch, like the rest of the Falcons, wanted to erase the nightmare. He didn’t want to remember Air Force’s 20 missed 3-pointers, season-low 35 points, or the tired performance against a Division I independent team that by all accounts the Falcons should have had no problem with.
   “I want the whole game back,” said Welch, who scored a gamehigh 15 points and had a careerhigh nine rebounds. “We just didn’t come to play, and it showed the whole game. It was like nobody played with heart.”
   Air Force’s three-game winning streak ended, and Texas-Pan American won its seventh straight game.
   The only good news came after the game when news of Utah’s loss to Wyoming filtered out, giving the Falcons a 1-game cushion in the Mountain West Conference .
   It was no consolation.
   Air Force (18-4) will still have to live with the glaring nonconference loss through March when it bares its sins in front of the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
   The Falcons will have to accept the season-lows in field-goal percentage (30.2 percent) and threepoint percentage (16.7 percent, 4 of 24), and the fact that for the second time this season, they couldn’t deal with a zone defense.
   “We stunk,” coach Joe Scott said.
   “This is a bad loss,” he added. “All losses like this are bad at this juncture of the season for everybody that is in the position we are in.”
   To Texas-Pan American’s credit, the Broncs executed their zone defense flawlessly, harassing Air Force’s shooters and clogging passing lanes.
   And Texas-Pan American came up with just enough offense to stay one step ahead of the Falcons.
   The Broncs (12-13) jumped to a 10-2 lead after six minutes, led 19-16 at halftime and when Air Force made a late run, Texas-Pan American answered, scoring five straight points after the Falcons held their last lead at 30-29 with 7:03 left.
   But the real dagger was a 3-pointer by Texas-Pan American forward Matt Berry with 3:52 left that put the Broncs up 37-33. It was Berry’s only points of the game.
   “It’s kind of surreal,” Kuhle said. “We had chances to win. We took it for granted that we were going to win.”



Air Force left scrambling


Tough road ahead to make up for unforeseen loss




   If Air Force’s men’s basketball team doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament in March, it’ll likely look back at its south Texas swoon as partly to blame.
   The Falcons tried to regroup Tuesday after Monday’s startling 37-35 nonconference loss to Texas-Pan American, but they did so with the knowledge that the result would likely linger into March.
   Coach Joe Scott said before Monday’s loss that the Falcons had to win the games they were supposed to win to solidify their resume when the NCAA Tournament selection committee makes its atlarge picks March 14.
   Air Force (18-4) was supposed to win this game — against a non-affiliated Division I independent team with a 12-13 record, ranked 227 in the Rating Percentage Index.
   Instead, it was Air Force’s RPI that dipped — from 52 to 70 — along with its tournament hopes.
   “It’s going to be an ugly loss. There’s no question,” said Mountain West Confer ence commissioner Craig Thompson, who was chairman of the NCAA Tournament selection committee from 1999-2000. “It’s not going to be something to help them, but I don’t think it’s going to be a deal breaker.”
   Only one team in the last 10 years has qualified for the NCAA Tournament with an RPI higher than 70 (New Mexico).
   “It’s the textbook example of a bad loss. It definitely goes against us,” sophomore center Nick Welch said. “We are barely winning games, and then we come out and lose this one.
   “I think we will have to perform well the rest of the way and win a lot of games to finish out the year for them to consider giving us a bid,” he added.
   The timing couldn’t have been worse for the Falcons. The team’s toughest road trip of the season looms this weekend with games at Utah on Saturday and BYU on Monday.
   But that’s part of the good news.
   Air Force remained atop the Moun tain West at 8-1 despite the loss, and actually gained a half-game on Utah (7-3 MWC), a loser to Wyoming on Monday.
   And the Falcons have five confer ence games and the conference tournament to rid themselves of the nasty feelings left Monday. How they play in those games will determine how the Texas-Pan American loss is perceived.
   Scott said a split this weekend, and a 4-1 or 3-2 finish this season, could cover up the unsightly blemish on the Falcons’ record.
   Anything worse and the loss will be magnified when the selection committee shines its spotlight on Air Force.
   “In the long run, in the big scheme of things, if we could get a road win this weekend, it would erase this one,” coach Joe Scott said Monday.
   Freshman Jacob Burtschi anticipated it might take more than that.
   “We really have to finish out 5-0 in the conference for them to still give us a good consideration,” Burtschi said. “We’ve got to pick it up starting Wednesday and if we don’t change things around, we will be lucky to get into the NIT.”
   First, the Falcons will have to figure where their shots went if they want a chance at either the NCAA Tournament or the less prestigious NIT, which Scott believes his team has already qualified for.
   After shooting 66.7 percent in a win over Wyoming on Feb. 7, Air Force has shot 37.6 percent over its last three games, and 31.8 percent from 3-point range.
   Poor shooting was especially to blame Monday. The Falcons set seasonlows by shooting 30.2 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from 3-point range (4 of 24).
   “We were fatigued,” Scott said. “It’s not an Xs and Os thing. We had open shots. There were open 3-pointers. I am not saying you’ve got to shoot 12 for 24, but I know we could have shot better.”
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Fatigue factor in Falcons’ defeat




In a year of firsts, Air Force coach Joe Scott saw one he didn’t like Monday.
Air Force played — and scored — like a junior varsity team, making sloppy passes, firing errant shots and generally slogging its way through its 37-35 nonconference loss at Texas-Pan American.
   “That’s the first time I think we have played tired,” Scott said Monday. “We just did everything to sort of make it easy for them. We told them we were tired, in our demeanor and in our body language.”
   It was disconcerting for Scott, to say the least, especially with the Falcons preening for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
   He didn’t offer a reason for the lethargic play, except to say it has to stop.
   But Air Force’s long, twoday trip to Edinburg, Texas, for Monday’s game might have had something to do it with it.
   Or, the Falcons could have simply overlooked Texas-Pan American, an unheralded opponent sandwiched in a sea of important conference games.
   Or, the academy’s rigorous class schedule could finally be affecting the Falcons, like it has seemed to bite other academy sports teams.
   Air Force’s football team was 1-3 this November and is 9-9 during the final month of the past five seasons.
   “All those factors come into play, but guess what? When you step on the court Saturday at 1 o’clock, nobody cares,” Scott said. “They don’t put six extra points up on the board because you had to write four papers.”
   “It’s the tough guys that don’t get tired,” he added.
   Air Force’s players will find out how tough they really are this week with road games against Utah on Saturday and BYU on Monday.
   Air Force (18-4, 8-1 Moun tain West Conference ) can erase some memory of Monday’s loss with a road win, proving the defeat by Texas-Pan American was an anomaly, and not the start of a trend.
   After a slow start to the conference season, BYU (16-7, 6-4) has won four straight. Utah (19-6, 7-3) lost Monday to Wyoming.
   On their home courts, there are few tougher teams in the conference .
   Utah and BYU, like Air Force, are undefeated at home this season.
   So Scott hasn’t talked to his team about the fatigue factor since Monday. He hasn’t needed to.
   “We still have the best two teams in the league next week, so if you are not excited about playing next weekend, then I don’t know what you play for,” senior A.J. Kuhle said.



Air Force 59, Utah 57 2/22/4


Scrappy Falcons again find a way to win


Utes may not shake hands, but they can’t help looking up


Gazette Sports columnist


   SALT LAKE CITY - Utah center Tim Frost is looking up — way up — at the Air Force basket ball team.
   The Falcons roared into the Huntsman Center, took on an army of red-clad fans and swiped a win.
   They now reign as the emperors of the Mountain West and look down on Frost and his Utah Utes, former rulers of the conference .
   Frost dislikes his position. He stood under a scoreboard that proclaimed Air Force had beaten Utah 59-57 Saturday.
   “Yeah, it’s tough,” Frost said. “This is Air Force.”
   He paused.
   “I’m embarrassed.”
   Frost remembers the old days, when he could count on the Falcons being lousy. It was one of the few certain things in life.
   He misses those days.
   He knows his Utes trail the Falcons by three games in the loss column. He knows the Utes play two of their final three games on the road.
   He knows his team has no chance to wear the Mountain West regular-season crown.
   But is Air Force the best team in the Mountain West ?
   Frost smiled at the question.
   “No, definitely not. I’d like to give them respect . . . but they’re not the best team in the conference .”
   Frost wasn’t alone in his rude dismissal of the Falcons. Half the Utes declined to shake hands after the game, instead trudging off to the locker room, where they could sulk in peace.
   This public snub shows Utah’s complete lack of grace. This snub also shouts that Air Force has arrived.
   Coach Joe Scott stood a few feet off the court, shaking his head as he thought back to Utah players walking away from handshakes.
   He grimaced when he heard Frost’s words.
   Scott had, a few minutes earlier, stood in the middle of a dozen reporters. Now, he stood alone. He had been restrained in his comments on Utah when he stood in the media throng.
   Now, he let loose.
   “Used to be, when we were losing, no one could say enough nice things about us,” Scott said. “They were always talking about our character and all that. Funny, they don’t talk about those things now that we’re winning.”
   When Air Force was losing, opponents were quick to shake hands. Now that Air Force is winning, the losers scurry away.
   “Boy, oh boy, things have changed,” Scott said, his voice gaining volume. “I believe in honesty and integrity, and this just bothers me.
   “For them not to shake our hands? For people, at this juncture, to still doubt us? That’s ridiculous. We have a threegame lead.”
   Give the Falcons their due. They soar in the middle of an astounding transformation.
   Coming into this season, the Falcons stood as the virtual opposite of Utah.
   The Utes had stomped to 112 wins and 25 losses in confer ence play since 1994. The Falcons stumbled to 113 losses to go with 24 wins.
   Air Force was picked this season to finish last again. The selection made sense. Air Force bumbling around in last place ranks as a tradition in the Mountain West .
   Ah, but the last are now first. Last year’s worst team walked into the Huntsman Center and completed a regularseason sweep of the Utes.
   Last year’s worst team trailed by four points with three minutes left and found a way to triumph.
   Last year’s worst team has transformed into a smart, rugged, resourceful, generous collection of players.
   “That’s change,” said guard Antoine Hood. “That is a change.”
   He laughed. His teammates surrounded him. The Utes had won 70 conference home games and lost three in the past 10 seasons. Hood and the Falcons had just handed the Utes home loss No. 4.
   “We’re 9-1,” Hood said, stating his team’s conference record. “What can our critics say now?”
   They should keep silent.
Columnist David Ramsey can be
   reached at 476-4895 or



Brigham Young 67, Air Force 61 2/24/4


Loss is sad footnote


Mistake proves costly as Falcons fail at end




PROVO, Utah - This time, this year, close just wasn’t nearly satisfying for Air Force.
   And close in the Falcons’ 67-61 Mountain West Confer ence loss to BYU on Monday night was about a foot. As in Nick Welch’s foot.
   Air Force squandered a 36-28 halftime lead as well as a chance to end years of frustration on the Cougars’ court with a lackluster second half, but for all the Falcons’ trouble, there was Welch, with less than two minutes left, seemingly tying the game at 58-58.
But as he drove uncontested for a layup that would have tied the game with 1:42 remaining, Welch dragged his pivot foot, and was whistled for traveling.
   “I turned around and I was surprised to be so alone,” said Welch, who scored a team-high 16 points for the Falcons. “That could have been a different game. That might have tied it up and who knows where the game goes from there.”
   Where it did go was where Air Force didn’t want it.
   There were more near-misses for the Falcons — a wide open 3-pointer by Antoine Hood that rattled out with less than a minute remaining — and the Cougars closed the game with seven free-throws and a lay-up by Mike Rose to win their 61st game in 62 tries at the Marriott Center in front of 17,152 fans.
   The loss put the Falcons’ coronation as Mountain West Conference regular-season champions on hold.
   When Air Force (19-5, 9-2 MWC) returns home to Clune Arena with a game-and-a-half lead on BYU and Utah, the Falcons will still have three chances to get one win to clinch a share of their first conference title. But the Falcons will also return with the knowledge that they left a few chances in Provo, where they haven’t won since 1989.
   “You are just that close,” Welch said. “Everybody is just that close in Provo but nobody seems to win it.”
   Air Force got close enough to win against Utah on Saturday, but this time around, there was no improbable comeback, just an improbable collapse. Air Force led by eight points 5:17 into the second half, but couldn’t hold the lead against the Cougars.
   And while it was 6-foot-11 center Rafael Araujo (21 points) who was the Cougars’ main offense in the first half, guard Mark Bigelow sparked the second-half comeback.
   Bigelow (21 points) scored seven straight points to help the Cougars (18-7, 8-4) tie the game 41-41 with 10:59 left to play, and after a lay-up by Jake Shoff less than a minute later, BYU never trailed, shooting 82.4 percent from the field in the second half.
   That was a stark contrast to the last meeting between the teams, a rout in which Air Force shot 72.5 percent from the field.
   “That’s amazing. You can’t beat anybody with that,” coach Joe Scott said. “I guess what goes around comes around.”



UNLV player is the star, but AFA directs outcome  2/29/4


Gazette Sports columnist


Jerel Blassingame shredded Air Force’s defense. On a riveting evening of basket ball theater, he nearly carried UNLV to a victory all by himself.
   Blassingame brought a playground game straight out of Brooklyn, employing the borough’s signature crossover dribble while making the Falcons look helpless and hopeless Saturday. “It was getting ridiculous,” Air Force forward Joel Gerlach said.
   It sure was. Blassingame, who might stand 5-foot-9, repeatedly took on all Falcon defenders and the howling crowd of 6,014 and trotted away with a faint smile and two points.
   No doubt, he won all the style points.
   Too bad he lost the game.
   The Falcons shook off the humiliation of Blassingame’s 28 points — 22 in the second half — and emerged with a 72-70 victory.
   Air Force is a team without a star. Coach Joe Scott preaches the beauty of team basketball , five players blending into a sum great- er than their parts.
   Scott’s approach stifles individual heroics.
   Scott’s approach sometimes seems to deny the existence of every dazzling basketball move invented since 1958.
   Scott’s approach works.
   “Their record speaks for itself,” Blassingame said in a quiet UNLV locker room.
   Yes, it does. Air Force rises to 10-2 in the Mountain West Conference , 20-5 overall. Used to be Mountain West coaches smiled when they saw Air Force on the schedule.
   No more. The Falcons have clinched at least a tie for the conference title.
   Blassingame made Air Force struggle, seizing control during a memorable 12-minute streak to open the second half.
   He ripped past Tim Keller, Antoine Hood and Matt Mc-Craw. He roared into the lane and challenged Tim Welch, who stands a foot taller. He shrugged off fans who complained his state-of-the-art dribbling was really palming.
   He scored 17 points in 12 minutes. The entire Air Force team scored 23 in that span.
   Funny thing, though. Scott was unmoved as he watched the horror show. Scott can resemble a volcano on the sideline as he shouts at his players with raspy voice and red face.
   He watched Blassingame breeze by his defenders and shrugged his shoulders. He sat in his folding chair, his legs crossed, and chatted with assistants Chris Mooney and Mike McKee.
   “We can’t stop the guy,” Scott said to his friends.
   Scott declined to erupt during Blassingame’s blitz because Air Force lost no ground during the 12-minute rampage.
   The Falcons trailed by two when Blassingame took control. They still trailed by two after his barrage.
   Scott followed a theme during timeouts in the second half. One guy, he shouted to his players, can’t beat five guys.
   This is basic basketball wisdom, but it seemed as if Blassingame would shred this truth. With 8:38 left, Blassingame dribbled downcourt and everyone in Clune Arena knew he would attack the basket.
   In the best can’t-stop-this tradition, Blassingame lowered his head and sprinted into the lane, where he banked in a lazy layup.
   The crowd gasped in amazement.
   Blassingame wasn’t surprised.
   “I knew their guards were a little slower than me,” Blassingame said.
   Finally, the Falcons defense woke up and Blassingame’s roaring fire dimmed in the final minutes.
   With 3:20 left and the game tied at 60, Blassingame again ripped into the lane looking for two points.
   This time he met Air Force’s Joel Gerlach, tired of watching Blassingame embarrass the Falcons. Gerlach met Blassingame in the air and blocked his shot.
   Blassingame was doomed.
   Following Scott’s script, four Falcons scored in the final 2:30. With six seconds left, A.J. Kuhle went to the line seeking to clinch the game and Blassingame strolled by to offer kind words of advice.
   “Don’t rush your shot,” he whispered to Kuhle.
   Kuhle took the advice, drained the shot and proved, once again, five players beat one.
   Still, give Blassingame credit.
   He departed the court knowing he almost conquered the Falcons by himself.
Columnist David Ramsey can be
   reached at 476-4895 or



Air Force 61, San Diego State 49  3/2/4


Champions at last


Conference title
caps improbable
surge to the top




Air Force has never soared this high.
   The Falcons completed their amazing run through the Mountain West Con ference on Monday night, beating San Diego State 61-49 and then celebrating on the Clune Arena court with a party 48 years in the making.
   The Falcons (21-5, 11-2) had done the unthinkable. The former league laughingstocks, picked to finish last again, are Mountain West Conference cham- pions.
   Outright. Undisputed.
   “I know nobody thought this day would ever come, probably in the history of college basket ball, and to do it in our fourth year is really something special,” said coach Joe Scott, who came to Air Force four years ago from Princeton to resurrect the long-suffering program.
   Scott had trouble believing it. His players had trouble calming down as they cut down the nets for the first time in the history of the 36-year-old arena, and senior A.J. Kuhle seemed at home with the remnants of a net hanging from his neck.
   “This is something special, something that I will treasure forever,” said Kuhle, who endured 56 losses before this season. “Really, there are so many memories of the past now that are just flooding through and now where we are at it’s unbelievable.”
   Many of the 5,811 fans rushed the court as senior Joel Gerlach donned his league championship T-shirt with pride.
   Sophomore center Nick Welch wore his new confer ence championship hat as crooked as the grin on his face.
   “You can’t describe a feeling like this in words,” said Welch, who scored a game-high 17 points and had seven rebounds. “It’s something you just feel all throughout your body and your whole body goes numb.”
   By the time Air Force finished cutting down the nets, the game was almost an afterthought, but it was as textbook as any Falcons’ win this season.
   Air Force led from start to finish, smothering San Diego State (14-14, 5-8) with its defense and raining 3-pointers with ease. The Falcons shot 47.7 percent from the field, but 48.1 percent from 3-point range, making 13 of 27 attempts.
   In his last game at Clune Arena, Gerlach scored 14 points, and Kuhle had a careerhigh 11 assists as the Falcons finished the season 13-0 at home for the first time.
   The Falcons jumped to a 10-2 lead after seven minutes, led 25-20 at halftime, and opened the second half with 3-pointers by Tim Keller (12 points) and Welch to grab a 31-20 lead.
   San Diego State never got within less than six points in the second half, and Keller punctuated the win with a twohanded dunk with 12 seconds left that whipped the crowd into a frenzy.
   “What we have done in the fashion we have done it — we haven’t given up this confer ence lead,” Scott said. “We had it the first game, and nobody has been within two games of us since the last five games. I never envisioned that.
   “I envisioned us one day battling for the title and fighting and clawing and getting in the picture but to do it in the manner we have done makes it a little surreal.”



Air Force 52, Wyoming 47 3/7/04


Falcons rewrite history


Surreal season just
keeps getting better
for MWC champs




   LARAMIE, Wyo. - Air Force just can’t stop making history.
   The Falcons pulled off another stunner Saturday with a thrilling 52-47 come-from-behind win over Wyoming, etching their names in the Moun tain West record books with their 12th league win.
   Just for kicks, the Falcons did it with a 10-point comeback in an arena that epitomizes decades of Air Force basketball frustration.
   Wyoming’s Arena-Auditorium has seen the Falcons’ fourovertime loss two years ago, the two-point loss a year ago and 14 straight defeats since 1989.
   And Saturday, 10,034 fans witnessed a victory.
   “Sitting in the locker room, half of us don’t know how to feel,” said junior guard Tim Keller, who scored a game-high 17 points. “There has been so much heartache. You look at it as just another win, but in a deep-down sense you know it’s always been so hard to win here, and it’s always been right there.”
   Maybe — perhaps finally — by closing out the best regular season in the five-year history of the confer ence with a win in its own personal house of horrors, Air Force exorcised the last lingering demons from its checkered past.
   The top-seeded Falcons (22-5, 12-2 MWC) will enter the Mountain West Tournament at 7 p.m. Thursday against No. 8 seed Colorado State with the best resume in league history.
   No team has won 12 games in a season or run away with the title by two games like Air Force has. Only three teams before had won five road games.
   “Now that the regular season is over everybody can look at this team at 22-5 and 12-2 and say this is one very, very good basketball team,” Air Force coach Joe Scott said. “. . . We have proven we are the class of this league.”
   Saturday, the Falcons did it in quite uncharacteristic fashion, using the largest comeback of the season to overcome a 39-29 deficit 6:26 into the second half.
   The 10-point comeback tied Air Force’s largest of the season. The Falcons also trailed by 10 in the second half in a win over Utah on Feb. 21.
   “The game is never over with us,” said sophomore center Nick Welch, who had 11 points. “I don’t care where we are playing or how big the deficit is.”
   It was Welch and Keller who sparked Air Force’s comeback, but they also got a little help from Wyoming (11-16, 4-10).
   Thanks in part to a stiffened Air Force defense, the Cowboys failed to make a field goal for the final 8:30 and scored just four points on free throws. The Falcons went on a 17-4 run to close the game.
   In the meantime, Keller and Welch took over.
   Keller’s steal of an inbounds pass led to a layup by Welch and sparked the Falcons’ final run. Welch finished it, driving past Wyoming’s Alex Dunn for a layup with 23 seconds left that put Air Force up 48-47 and secured the Falcons’ place in history with 12 league wins.
   “No team has done it before so it proves we are the best team in the history of the Mountain West so far,” senior A.J. Kuhle said.
   CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0256 or




Cadets make trek up to Wyoming


An organized road trip travels to game




   LARAMIE, Wyo. - Some boarded a bus early Saturday morning. Others found their own way.
   But by tip-off Saturday, more than 125 cadets had made the trek to Arena-Auditorium for Air Force’s 52-47 win over Wyoming on Saturday.
   It is believed to be the first time in coach Joe Scott’s four years at the academy a road trip has been organized by the cadets. “We just want to show them we are here for them and that this is their home away from home,” said senior cadet Kyle Bressette, who organized the event.
   Bressette also said there would be a large contingent of fans in Denver on for Air Force’s game against Colorado State in the first round of the Mountain West Tournament at 7 p.m. Thursday.
   Air Force ticket manager Chris Peludat said the academy’s original allotment of 440 tickets was sold last week. Bressette said he expected 600 cadets in Denver.

Nostradamus Nuzzo

   Few people can say they predicted Air Force’s amazing run this season.
   Except Falcons assistant coach Mike Nuzzo.
   Nuzzo predicted the Falcons would win 21 games this season in an informal preseason contest among Air Force’s assistants, winning Scott’s Final Four tickets this April in San Antonio.
   For the past two years, the coaches have held the contest among themselves. Scott won it last season with a guess of 12 wins.
   Nuzzo was by far the closest this season.
   Scott wouldn’t reveal his guess, nor the guesses of the other coaches.
   But let’s put it this way: Nuzzo won the tickets it in a runaway.

Technical trouble

   Scott got his second technical foul of the season just by opening his mouth in the second half.
   “(The referee) told me at halftime he doesn’t want to talk to me anymore, and I talked to him, so I got it,” Scott said. “He was right to call it.”
   The call couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Falcons. After trailing by nine at halftime, Air Force had pulled to within four points before Jay Straight made both free throws to extend Wyoming’s second-half lead to 35-29 with 14:46 left.



Man in the middle makes a big difference this time  3/12/4


CSU center an obstacle for AFA




   DENVER - Air Force beat Colorado State twice in the regular season. CSU’s Matt Nelson played in neither game because of injuries.
   The 7-footer was in the Rams’ lineup in Thursday’s Mountain West Conference quarterfinal contest, and the result was a 60-48 win over Air Force to advance to today’s semifinals.
   At least five Air Force players guarded Nelson at some point, often double- and tripleteaming him. In the first half, Air Force missed 7 of 13 shots from close range.
   Late in the first half, when Air Force’s Joel Gerlach received a pass on the wing, Nelson stood in the lane as the lone defender within 10 feet. Gerlach didn’t drive.
   Nelson’s ordinary 10-point, six-rebound statistical output didn’t tell everything about his role in the Rams’ victory.
   “He’s big. He takes up a lot of space,” Gerlach said. “He has great hands. We’ve always got to be worried about him a little bit. We always had a couple guys around him and that allowed them to get their guard play going a little more.”
   The last time the teams played, in an eight-point Air Force win on Feb. 9, CSU forwards Stephen Verwers and Matt Williams combined for two points, five rebounds and six fouls in 29 minutes. Air Force had little concern with CSU’s low-post game.
   Thursday, Nelson commanded attention, especially when Air Force played defense.
   “They’re a pretty athletic team, so having him in there, our defense is more centered in the paint,” Air Force guard Tim Keller said. “Having to run out at some of those guys is pretty difficult, trying to stay in front of them.”
   Air Force has often used the other team’s big man to its advantage this season, drawing him to the perimeter and thus opening up the middle.
   Air Force wasn’t as successful doing that Thursday. Nelson played on the perimeter to help make 3-point shots difficult, and CSU’s defenders chose to switch off instead of fighting through picks.
   Air Force center Nick Welch, the conference’s coplayer of the year, had one of his worst games. He was pointless at halftime and finished with 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting.
   “I should have used my speed more than I did,” Welch said, “because I am a lot quicker than most of the centers in this league




3/19/04 NCAA

Atlanta Regional: North Carolina 63, Air Force 52


Falcons stopped cold


Air Force runs out of steam in second half




   DENVER - Air Force’s magical run hit a brick wall called North Carolina Thursday night as the Tar Heels beat the Falcons 63-52 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in front of 19,405 at Pepsi Center.
   Air Force (22-7), the 11th seed in the Atlanta Regional, was an underdog in its first tournament appearance in 42 years.
   But the Falcons led 28-23 at halftime and gave sixth-seeded North Carolina (19-10) a scare before running out of gas. A nearly three-minute stretch, filled with Air Force turnovers and 11 straight North Carolina points, spelled defeat.
   Nick Welch led Air Force with 17 points. Sean May led four Tar Heels in double figures with 14 points.
   The altitude was a change for North Carolina and coach Roy Williams used 10 players, with seven playing at least 10 minutes.
   Joel Gerlach was the only Air Force starter not to play all 40 minutes. After shooting 50 percent from the field in the first half, the Falcons shot 38.1 percent in the second, including 25 percent from 3-point range.
   “I did consider subbing but we were playing very well in the first half, obviously,” Air Force coach Joe Scott said. “Fatigue wasn’t a factor then. Fatigue didn’t seem to be a factor when we took a six-point lead, 44-38.”
   That was when the Falcons hit the wall and the Tar Heels responded, helping Williams win his first NCAA Tournament game as North Carolina’s coach. Williams, who took Kansas to the title game last spring, complimented Air Force .
   “They shouldn’t allow tonight’s game to destroy what they have done this season,” Williams said. “They have had a great season, and I hope the Air Force players remember that.”
   Tar Heel guard Raymond Felton applauded the Falcons’ toughness, and forward Jawad Williams talked about Air Force’s heart.
   None of it mattered.
   Air Force players wanted more than a brief stay in the NCAA Tournament — the school’s first trip to the tournament since 1962.
   With 22 wins and a Mountain West regular-season title, Air Force virtually rewrote its own record book, with one exception. The Falcons still have never won a game in the NCAA Tournament.
   “Our faces show it all. We are not just happy to be here,” Welch said. “We want to win games. You look at any player on our team right now and we are disappointed.”
   Welch was disappointed because of what might have been. While North Carolina advanced to play Texas Saturday, the Falcons were left to wonder what went wrong.
   The Falcons seemed unfazed by the four-time national champions.
   “They are a good team and everything, but the game was ours to win,” Air Force sophomore Antoine Hood said. “We just lost it. We controlled the game in the first half, but we had too many turnovers.”
   Air Force knew it had to be nearly perfect to beat North Carolina, but for a 2:38 stretch midway through the second half, they were far from it.
   The Falcons committed three of their season-high 16 turnovers during that span, twice bobbling away possessions nearly uncontested.
   Meanwhile, North Carolina took advantage, turning a 44-38 deficit into a 49-44 lead.
   Felton’s 3-pointer with 11:21 remaining gave North Carolina a 46-44 lead it never relinquished, and Felton added a backbreaker a minute later.
   With the shot clock nearing zero, Felton (12 points) lofted a rainbow of a shot from beyond the NBA 3-point line that hit nothing but net.
   “We didn’t play perfect,” Gerlach said. “Some turnovers, they were getting some hands on some passes. We weren’t as tough with the ball as we should have been. They got some key rebounds on us. Against a great team like that, you have to play perfect and it’s hard to do sometimes.”
   tjacobson@gazette .com AIR FORCE PLAYER MIN FGM-A FTM-1 OFF REB AST PF PTS A. Kuhle 40 2-3 5-6 0 6 3 1 10 J. Gerlach 16 1-2 2-3 0 0 0 3 5 N. Welch 40 6-13 3-4 1 4 1 3 17 T. Keller 40 1-6 0-0 0 3 7 3 2 A. Hood 40 6-12 0-0 0 4 1 2 15 J. Burtschi 23 1-3 0-0 0 2 3 3 3 D. Nwaelele 1 0-0 0-0 0 0 0 0 0 Totals 200 17-39 10-13 1 19 15 15 52 Team rebounds: 2 Turnovers: 16 (N. Welch 6, N. Kuhle 3, A. Hood 3, J. Gerlach 2, T. Keller, D. Nwaelele) Blocked shots: 2 (T. Keller, N. Welch) Steals: 7 (N. Welch 3, A. Hood 2, A. Kuhle, J. Burtschi) 3-pt FGs: 825, .320 (A. Kuhle 1-2, J. Gerlach 1-2, N. Welch 2-7, T. Keller 0-5, A. Hood 3-5, J. Burtshci 1-3) NORTH CAROLINA PLAYER MIN FGM-A FTM-1 OFF REB AST PF PTS J. Williams 30 3-8 4-5 5 9 1 2 10 R. McCants 34 4-13 0-0 1 8 3 1 9 S. May 28 6-11 2-3 2 6 0 0 14 R. Felton 34 2-8 6-7 0 3 5 2 12 J. Manuel 32 5-8 0-0 5 7 1 3 10 M. Scott 28 1-2 2-2 0 0 1 2 5 R. Terry 2 0-1 0-0 0 0 0 0 0 J. Holley 1 0-0 0-0 0 0 0 1 0 D. Noel 10 1-2 1-1 0 1 1 4 3 B. Sanders 1 0-0 0-0 0 0 0 0 0 Totals 200 22-52 15-18 13 34 12 15 63 Team rebounds: 1 Turnovers: 13 (R. McCants 4, R. Feton 3, D. Noel 3, J. Manuel 2, J. Williams) Blocked shots: 1 (R. McCants) Steals: 10 (R. Felton 3, J. Manuel 2, S. May 2, R. McCants 2 D. Noel) 3-pt FGs: 4-13, .308 (R. McCants 1-5, R. Felton 2-4, M. Scott 1-2, R. Terry 0-1, D. Noel 0-1) Technicals None Attendance: 19,405 3.



Falcons get beaten at their own game




   DENVER - What irked Air Force senior A.J. Kuhle most about a 63-52 loss to North Carolina on Thursday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament at Pepsi Center was how it unfolded.
   In the second half of their Atlanta Regional game, the Tar Heels simply seemed tougher than the Falcons.
   They dove for loose balls, grabbed big rebounds and outhustled a team that had prided itself on that type of play all season.
   “When they made a run we got a little weak and didn’t respond with toughness,” Kuhle said. “That had been our staple throughout the year, and that’s why we won 22 games. When that happened, we didn’t make the plays toward the end.”
   Air Force had a season-high 16 turnovers and was outrebounded 35-21. Falcons coach Joe Scott gave the Tar Heels credit for picking up the intensity in the second half.
   “They were tough enough to make sure they won,” Scott said. “I don’t think we are an easy team to defend, but they did a good job of it.”

Burtschi to have surgery

   Jacob Burtschi’s nagging shoulder injury returned in the first half Thursday when he dislocated his right shoulder with 6:12 remaining in the first half.
   Air Force trainers were able to pop Burtschi’s shoulder back into place, and he returned 49 seconds later. But offseason surgery will be necessary to completely repair the freshman’s shoulder.
   Surgery had already been planned following the season to tighten the ligaments in Burtschi’s right shoulder, team trainer Larry Willock said this week.
   Burtschi dislocated his shoulder twice earlier in the season and has practiced with a brace that protects his shoulder ever since.
   If Burtschi doesn’t have surgery, there is a high likelihood of him dislocating his shoulder again, Willock said. It will take up to six months for him to rehabilitate the injury, but he should be ready for the start of next season, according to Willock.



Atlanta Regional: North Carolina 63, Air Force 52


There’s no reason Falcons shouldn’t be back


Gazette Sports columnist


DENVER - Air Force will return.
   The Falcons have the talent and the wisdom and, now, the big-game experience to travel back to the NCAA Tournament next season.
   The Falcons walked to the brink of victory, but couldn’t quite find the energy and poise to deliver an upset over
North Carolina.
   Don’t worry. Air Force has everything needed to climb back to the NCAA Tournament.
   Joel Gerlach and A.J. Kuhle depart, but freshmen Jacob Burtschi and Dan Nwaelele will ably replace them. Both players have the required skills and the knowledge of Joe Scott’s complex system to excel.
   This year’s Falcons almost stunned the Tar Heels and proved their march to the tournament was no fluke. They proved that by grabbing a 44-38 lead with
12:50 left.
   When Joel Gerlach converted a four-point play — a 3-pointer and a free throw — the crowd at
Pepsi Center began roaring and the Air Force bench came to life.
   Air Force fans sensed an upset.
   Exhaustion halted the Falcons’ magical ride and they lost to the Tar Heels 63-52. Scott chose to take a death march approach to the game, playing four of his starters for the entire 40 minutes.
   “I don’t think they were tired,” Scott said.
   They were tired.
   In the game’s final minutes, the Falcons had nothing left. They delivered a superlative 28 minutes to open the game, but were a stumbling, weary team in the stretch.
   Scott should have turned to Nwaelele, a 6-foot-4 freshman. Scott should have told him to get in there and revive the team’s dormant offense. You don’t win NCAA Tournament games without a bench.
   Next season, the Falcons should feature a stronger set of reserves and a deeper sense of belief. “We’re definitely coming back,” Antoine Hood said. “There’s no question.”
   Hood believes next season’s edition of Air Force will feature an eight-to-10 man rotation, which will be, Hood said, “stronger and more athletic.”
   Remember, Brigham Young and
Utah, Air Force’s closest competitors this season, will see their lineups gutted by departing seniors.
   Air Force will play in front of packed, crazed audiences at Clune Arena. Thursday’s loss does nothing to halt the momentum of a magical transformation.
   “This isn’t a one-year deal for us,” Scott said.
   Of course, the question that hovers over the offseason is Scott’s return. If he had led Air Force to a victory over
North Carolina, he would have seized the attention of the bas ketball nation and might have caught the eye of an athletic director.
   Offers are coming, but probably not the right one. You can expect Scott to snarl and stomp along Clune’s sidelines next season.
   And expect the winning to continue. Nick Welch will be the best player in the Mountain West, and he’ll be surrounded by able sidekicks.
   Hood and Tim Keller have shown what they can do. The Falcons’ secret asset will be Nwaelele.
   “People don’t understand the talent that he has,” Burtschi said. “He’s smooth, quick, and has some of the best athletic ability that I’ve ever seen.”
   As the game ended, Air Force players gathered in a line while listening to the school alma mater. They held hands, stared straight ahead.
   No one was crying. Players understood what they had accomplished. They knew they had climbed out of Mountain West gutter, taking an unlikely journey from worst to first.
   They knew they had put a severe scare into
North Carolina. Air Force , a team with zero tradition, came close to conquering the Tar Heels of Dean Smith, Bob McAdoo and Michael Jordan.
   And they knew next season could be even better.
   Nick Welch said next season’s goal will not be just a trip to what he calls “the Big Dance.” Next season, he said, the Falcons want to win at the Dance.
   It could happen.
   It should happen.



Short lapse comes with a huge price


Temporary defensive letdown dooms AFA


Gazette Sports columnist


   DENVER - One short lapse prevented a victory.
   One lapse stopped Air Force from generating the biggest upset of the NCAA Tournament’s opening round.
   One lapse caused the spiral that led to North Carolina’s 63-52 defeat of the Falcons on Thursday at Pepsi Center.
   The Falcons played outstanding defense for more than 37 of the game’s 40 minutes. But 2:17 doomed them. Midway through the second quarter, in 2:17, the Falcons went from holding a 44-38 lead to trailing 49-44.
   Falcons coach Joe Scott said turnovers led to his team’s undoing.
   Bad defensive position led to Nick Welch’s foul on Tar Heels center Sean May, who made the basket and the free throw. Then, not once but twice, the Falcons were caught seemingly meandering on defense, enabling the Tar Heels to easily pass around the perimeter to an open player. Both times the open man hit a 3-pointer.
   “That was the biggest play of the game,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said, referring to May’s basket plus the converted free throw. “Those possessions after, that was pretty basketball .”
   It was the ugliest moment of the night for the Falcons.
   “That was the juncture of the game where our defense had about a four or five minute stretch where it slowed down a little bit,” Scott said. “After that four- to five-minute stretch, we started defending pretty well.”
   It was too late by then.
   Four Falcons played the entire 40 minutes Thursday.
   Williams substituted liberally, playing 10 players. Seven Tar Heels played at least 10 minutes.
   It’s easy to see why the Falcons players may have been tired. But they were not. The Falcons have frequently had multiple players play the duration this season. Scott doesn’t give his team that excuse.
   The Falcons looked just as fresh when they were up by six as they did when they were down. The only difference was the Tar Heels’ tenacity. As the game began to reach its twilight, as the Tar Heels began to smell victory, they simply got tougher.
   “One of the staples of our program is that I don’t accept guys being tired,” Scott said. “How can you be tired when you’re 19 years old and you’re playing college basketball ? You’ve got to be kidding me.
   “There’s no such thing as being tired. There are other people in the world with a right to be tired, because they have a lot of things going on. When you’re 19 or 20, you’ve got to get yourself in the type of shape and toughness and mental stamina if you want to compete at this level and win games at this level. I don’t think they were tired. I think Carolina did some things that forced us out of what we wanted to do.”
   Defensively, the Falcons did everything they wanted in the first half.
   Everybody talked about Pete Carril’s Princeton offense and the difficulty it takes to defend it. Folks talked about the hard cuts. They talked about precise shooting and the continuous back-door cuts. They talked about the patience it takes to work a shot clock almost to its end, and still get a good shot.
   Everything about Carril’s offense that made him the hall of fame coach he is was dissected by everybody at Pepsi Center.
   Folks seemed to forget about the defense.
   The Falcons forgot about the defense, too, for 2:17.
   And it grounded them.
Columnist Milo F. Bryant can be reached at



Tar Heels finally can breathe a sigh of relief




   DENVER - For the first half of its game against Air Force , North Carolina looked like an upset waiting to happen.
   But the Tar Heels pulled out of their nose dive to beat Air Force 63-52 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night at Pepsi Center before an announced sellout crowd of 19,405.
   North Carolina, the No. 6 seed, faces No. 3 Texas in the second round Saturday of the Atlanta Regional.
   Maryland faces Syracuse in the other second-round game at Pepsi Center.
   For North Carolina, the win over a pesky, unconventional Air Force team was a relief. While this was the NCAA Tournament debut for players from both teams, Carolina — with its rich tournament pedigree — had far more to lose with a defeat to a military academy making its first trip here in 42 years.
   “I feel like I lost 30 to 35 pounds tonight,” said North Carolina’s Rashad McCants, who had nine points and eight rebounds. “It just feels so good to get the first win.”
   North Carolina nearly didn’t. It trailed at halftime 28-23 by making just 10 of 31 shots from the field, including 1 for 8 from beyond the 3-point arc. At the beginning, “Everyone shot really tight. It was very frustrating,” said McCants.
   But coach Roy Williams, in his first year at North Carolina, told his team at halftime he wasn’t troubled by the missed shots. The squad was not playing tough enough. Air Force was hitting the floor for loose balls. The Tar Heels were not.
   “Air Force wanted it more than we did,” said North Carolina guard Raymond Felton, who finished with 12 points.
   Against the nation’s stingiest defense — Air Force allowed opponents just 50.4 points a game — North Carolina took a page from the cadets. The Tar Heels got scrappy.
   They hit the floor and it paid off on the scoreboard.
   Trailing 44-38 with less than 13 minutes left in the game, Carolina went on an 11-0 run. It took the lead for good on a 3-pointer by Felton to make it 46-44.
   “It was a prayer,” Felton said. “I was about 3 feet behind the 3-point NBA line, and I just went up and made a big shot. It was luck if you want to call it that, but it was a big shot.”
   The Tar Heels forced turnovers. In the second half, they made 12 of 22 field goals (54.5 percent). They outrebounded Air Force 35-21 in the game.
   Williams downplayed the effects of altitude, but he included a remedy in his game plan by shuttling players onto the floor the whole game. Did it help?
   “Yeah, definitely,” McCants said. “I appreciated it. It gave me a breather.”
   So did the win.


Falcons have little to fear vs. talent-rich Tar Heels


Gazette Sports columnist


   North Carolina better get ready.
   Thursday night, the Tar Heels will walk into Pepsi Center and encounter the kind of hostility they meet at Duke or Maryland.
   The Tar Heels will listen to a howling mob that wants to see them beaten. The Tar Heels will then have to run around for 40 minutes in light air, all the time hassled by Air Force’s defense.
   The talent level of college bas ketball keeps sinking as the NBA raids choice talent, but the NCAA Tournament still seizes our attention with the primal appeal of little guy vs. big guy, David vs. Goliath, the Falcons with no tradition vs. the Tar Heels of Michael Jordan and Dean Smith.
   Only a few thousand Air Force fanatics will sit among the sold-out masses Thursday night, but it won’t matter. This will be a Falcons crowd. Texas and Princeton and neutral fans will root for Cadets.
Because the tournament is fueled by a desire to see big shots like North Carolina eliminated. I know. The Tar Heels of today are not the Tar Heels of old.
Jordan and Kenny Smith and Doug Moe and Larry Brown and Vince Carter and Rasheed Wallace — hey, no program is perfect — all once wore Carolina blue.
   The current Tar Heels are a shadow of those grand days. North Carolina, despite the direction of coach Roy Williams, is at times sloppy and lazy.
   Still, the Tar Heels have the name, the aura, the tradition.
   “That being said, they’re just another basket ball team,” Air Force coach Joe Scott said Monday.
   He means no disrespect. Scott places the Tar Heels at the top of the college basketball ladder, up there with Kentucky and UCLA.
   He knows NCAA championship banners and an array of retired jerseys hang from the rafters of the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, N.C.
   Yet he knows Thursday’s game is all about the present tense. Jordan won’t be taking the court. He can, like all the other North Carolina greats, only watch.
   That’s too bad for the Tar Heels. They could use help.
   An Air Force victory would not be a shocking upset. If Air Force had followed its domination of the Mountain West regular season with a tournament title, the Falcons would have soared to a No. 6 or 7 seed in the NCAAs.
   The Tar Heels boast brawn. The Falcons boast polish.
   The Tar Heels can look to the advantage of surviving the gnawing pressure of the Atlantic Coast Conference . The Falcons are blessed with what Scott calls “almost a home game.”
   Expect a poised, rampaging effort from Air Force on Thursday. The Falcons were often physically outmatched this season, but employed a relentless defense and a no-star, always-share offense to maul opponents.
   BYU bears a resemblance to North Carolina. Both teams are filled with big men who can fly. Both teams lack discipline.
   Remember, Air Force nearly swept BYU. After the Falcons pounded the Cougars at Clune Arena, the teams met in the frenzied, yet polite, Marriott Center. BYU roared to a secondhalf lead and looked ready to bury the Falcons.
   But Air Force declined to surrender. They took on the crowd and Rafael Araujo’s elbows and nearly left with a victory.
   The Falcons can topple a physically superior team. They’ve done it again and again.
   Doubt them? Don’t worry. The Falcons hear you. They know a legion of scoffers lurk out there, certain they will get pounded.
   “Now is our chance to go show everyone that we can play,” senior co-captain A.J. Kuhle said.
   This is powerful motivation. Kuhle and the Falcons remember years of stumbling around as losers, unloved by virtually anyone.
   Thursday, the Falcons will walk into Pepsi Center and feel the love from nearly everyone.
Columnist David Ramsey can be reached at 476-4895


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