Air Force Shines in 69-62 Win Over UNLV
Falcons have won 5 of their last 6 at Clune Arena
Falcons’ Bench Comes Alive to Rally Air Force to Victory
Air Force and UNLV met Thursday night for the 58th time in series history. The game marked a quick turnaround for both teams, each playing away earlier in the week. UNLV travelled in hopes of improving the series lead to 44-14 all-time; for the Falcons, an opportunity to bounce back from a 3-game losing streak and the first home loss of the season.
UNLV started off hot as the Runnin’ Rebels established an early lead, taking advantage of the Falcons’ early struggles with missed shots and turnovers. The Falcons seemed to be in the same funk early that resulted in the 20 turnover loss to Boise State on Tuesday. Through the first 10 minutes, the Rebs had a 20-13 lead, with Bryce Hamilton quickly firing off 11 points.
Air Force seemed stalled completely when Falcons’ Coach Joe Scott began subbing in players off the bench. The intensity of play from the bench provided Air Force the spark they needed to get back in the game: a key defensive series for the Falcons brought the score to a 24-21 Air Force lead featuring steals by both senior guard Carter Murphy and freshman center Ryan Corner. In that 4-minute span, the Falcons’ defense cinched down on the Rebels, holding them scoreless. By the end of the half, the Falcons had extended their lead to 33-25.
After the break, Air Force attempted to keep UNLV at an arm’s length. The Runnin’ Rebels fought to regain the lead throughout, with stellar play from the duo of Bryce Hamilton and Donovan Williams. As the clock wound down to the final minutes, UNLV brought the margin within 5. The young Falcons team needed an answer on offense to close out the game and found one in star senior AJ Walker. Walker had been quiet most of the game, but was able to hold off the Rebs with two clutch layups and a trip to the line. Time expired with the score 69-62 in favor of Air Force.
Despite the loss, UNLV showed flashes of brilliance from Williams and Hamilton. Donovan Williams came alive in the second half to finish with 19. Bryce Hamilton shot 7-12 from the field and 10-13 from the line for a total of 31. Where the starters shone for the Rebels, the bench logged only 4 points; Air Force’s bench combined for 28 in stark contrast.
With the win in the books, the box score shows perhaps the most complete game from this fledgling Falcons team all season. For the second game in a row, the Falcons outrebounded their opponent at 31-28. Ethan Taylor continued to produce at a high clip with a double-double: 10 rebounds and 16 points. Freshman guard Jeffree Mills also proved to be a standout with a career-high 13 points off the bench in just 25 minutes. Walker yet again proved why he is the heart and soul of this Air Force team. After a lackluster performance throughout most of the game, AJ Walker’s clutch play late closed out the game for the Falcons.
Despite losing the last 3 in a row, the Falcons have seemingly been on the cusp of being a very competitive team; however, in the final minutes, Air Force seemed too young to execute at the level needed to pull off the victory. Perhaps this game marks a turn of the page for this team, as players continue to develop at a high rate and the team gels. Without a doubt, the Falcons will be put to the test Saturday, when they take on David Roddy and his Colorado State Rams at home in Clune Arena. The Falcons will be looking to extend their record at home to 6-1 on short rest.
As for the Rebels, they fall to 2-3 in conference, but have a chance to pull the score back to even against a rebuilding San Jose State group before they take on the Rams themselves.
Air Force and UNLV will meet again February 8th, this time in Vegas. Be sure to tune in and see whether the game proves to be a redemptive grudge match for the Rebels, or a chance for the Falcons to pull the series to a margin of 27.
Hunter Zaniewski is a rookie reporter for MW Wire. He covers Air Force Hoops and is an avid champion of Mountain West Athletics.
Air Force Basketball, UNLV Basketball