9:00 PM ET, March 11, 2004
Pepsi Center, Denver, Colorado
DENVER (AP) -- Winning its season finale against New Mexico was just what Colorado State needed to put itself in position for another improbable postseason run.The Rams took control with an 18-3 spurt to start the second half and hit 10 straight free throws in the final two minutes to knock off No. 25 Air Force 60-48 Thursday night in the Mountain West Conference tournament quarterfinals.Colorado State (13-15) struggled all season, mostly due to injuries, but gained confidence with a 76-66 win over New Mexico on Saturday."There's no question you have to have some momentum," Colorado State coach Dale Layer said. "It would have been easy for this team to quit three weeks ago. That's why these guys are winners and they have big hearts."Top-seeded Air Force (22-6) entered the Top 25 this week for the first time in school history after winning its first conference title and setting a school record for wins. The Falcons still have a good shot at going to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1962, but will have to wait to end a postseason losing streak that is now 12 games."Everybody gets 27 regular-season games and I think we did our jobs over the course of those 27 games," Air Force coach Joe Scott said. "Sometimes these conference tournaments have a tendency to reward teams that haven't had good years, give them a second chance, but we earned our chance."Air Force hasn't won a conference tournament game since 1990, when it was in the Western Athletic Conference, and is 0-5 in the Mountain West tournament.Colorado State entered the tournament as the eighth seed after losing seven of its final eight games, but shot 51 percent to move on to the semifinals Friday against UNLV, which defeated New Mexico 55-53.Ronnie Clark had 14 points and Dwight Boatner added 11 for the Rams, last year's Mountain West tournament champion as the sixth seed."I'm proud of my guys for hanging in there," Layer said. "Saturday was a big win at home and then to come back to beat the No. 1 seed. It doesn't happen very often."Colorado State led by just five at halftime despite shooting 52 percent, but broke the game open by shooting 6-for-7 during its opening 18-3 run in the second half.Matt Nelson put Colorado State up 17 with two free throws after Scott was called for a technical foul, and Jon Rakiecki made it 43-23 at 13:40 with a 3-pointer from the corner.The Rams were just as good on defense.Tim Keller hit the first basket of the second half from the post to cut Colorado State's lead to 25-22, but the Falcons went six minutes before hitting another field goal. Nick Welch broke through with a spin move with 13:10 left, but it was 43-25 by then."I think we lost our focus on defense and what stemmed from that was greedy and selfish play on offense," Air Force forward Joel Gerlach said. "After we got down a lot, players were like 'I'm going to be the guy to bring us back,' and that's not how we play basketball."Air Force finally got its portion of the crowd excited with a 7-0 run that cut Colorado State's lead to 10, then Antoine Hood made it 50-42 with a 3-pointer with just over three minutes left.The Falcons got it down to six with just under two minutes left, but Boatner and Rakiecki went 10-for-10 on free throws to seal the win.Air Force swept the season series against Colorado State for the first time since 1991, but the Rams were without the 7-foot Nelson both times. He was back, although he wasn't much of a factor.Nelson did block Keller's drive on Air Force's fourth shot, but wasn't able to challenge many other shots because he had to move out on Welch, a 45 percent 3-point shooter.Colorado State also tried too hard to get Nelson the ball on offense, with four of its nine first-half turnovers coming from forcing the ball into the post."They were doing a great job helping out guys and it was hard getting into a flow and get the ball," said Nelson, who finished with 10 points. "You could tell they studied hard because they weren't letting me get anything."Neither team could get much going early against strong defensive pressure.The score was stuck at 10-7 for four minutes midway through the half and Air Force went nearly six minutes without a field goal until A.J. Kuhle hit a running left-handed hook in the lane.Colorado State still managed to hit 12 of 23 shots in the half and went on a 7-0 run late to take a 25-20 lead. Air Force couldn't find a rhythm in the first half and finished just 8-for-21 with eight turnovers."We just weren't executing the way we're supposed to execute," Scott said.
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