March 9, 2006
DENVER (AP) - Air Force set itself up for a long, uncomfortable weekend on the bubble after a 57-55 loss to Wyoming in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament Thursday night.
Steve Leven scored 20 points and the seventh-seeded Cowboys (13-17) made 11 of 12 free throws down the stretch to snap a six-game losing streak and keep their hopes alive for a fantastic finish to an otherwise dismal season.
Wyoming will play the winner of the Utah-BYU quarterfinal in Friday's semis.
The Falcons (24-6), meanwhile, extended their unseemly stretch without a victory in the conference tournament to 16 seasons - hardly news when they were one of the worst teams in college basketball, but more significant since their remarkable resurgence over the past three years.
Two years ago, under similar circumstances, they sneaked into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1962. This time, they'll wait again, hoping the program-record 24 wins and their No. 38 ranking in the RPI will be enough to woo the selection committee.
One member, Karl Benson of the Western Athletic Conference, was at the Pepsi Center to watch the second-seeded Falcons fall behind by 16 early in the second half, then fail in a frantic effort to come back.
That ruined coach Jeff Bzdelik's return to Denver - the first game he's coached at the Pepsi Center since Dec. 26, 2004, two days before he was fired by the Denver Nuggets.
Sparked by a four-point play by Matt McCraw and a couple steals by Tim Anderson, Air Force shaved a 34-18 deficit to 44-41 with 4 minutes to play and had a couple chances to tie. But Jacob Burtschi's 3-pointer rimmed out and, a minute later, McCraw clanked one from NBA range.
On the next possession, Wyoming's Brandon Ewing shimmied loose for a spot-up jumper from about 15 feet to make it 46-41 with 1:38 left.
From there, Air Force started fouling and Wyoming answered each time.
The game was still in question with 7.9 seconds left when Andrew Henke hit a 3-pointer to pull Air Force within 55-53. But Leven got fouled on the in-bounds pass and the 83 percent free throw shooter sank both to ice the game. Burtschi's tip-in at the buzzer made it a two-point margin.
The Cowboys went 22-for-23 from the free throw line. Ewing was 8-for-8 and finished with 12 points to help take a little pressure off coach Steve McClain, whose job could be in jeopardy as a result of the poor finish.
Antoine Hood led the Falcons with 16 points and McCraw had 12. Air Force shot only 39 percent, and made only five field goals in the first half. The Falcons fell behind by 16 during a 13-minute stretch without a basket that finally ended with 15 minutes left in the game.