PROVO, Utah -- BYU is becoming quite proficient at finding ways to win.
The Cougars (No. 14 ESPN/USA Today, No. 15 AP) held off Air Force 76-66 on Saturday despite shooting only 42 percent from the floor and 30 percent (9 of 30) from 3-point range.
"They sped us up a little bit and we didn't shoot the ball as well as we're capable of, but it was another one of those wins where our guys found a way to win, and that's really important," BYU coach Dave Rose said.
Jimmer Fredette scored 22 points and Jackson Emery tied Danny Ainge as BYU's career steals leader. Noah Hartsock had 12 points and 11 rebounds and Brandon Davies added in 10 points and six boards for the Cougars (16-1, 2-0).
Fredette had 13 points after the break to stretch the Cougars' seven-point halftime lead to 18 midway through the second half.
"Jimmer is just uncanny," Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds said. "You can play him tough and he still gets his points. The minute you relax on him he makes shots. He is just a terrific player."
The Falcons pulled to 69-61 with 3 minutes remaining, but Hartsock hit a 3-pointer with 1:45 to go to seal BYU's win.
"It was a hard fought game but we were well prepared and we played hard," Rose said.
The Cougars led most of the way and held on with strong rebounding and reliable free-throw shooting. The Cougars were 19 of 22 from the line, outrebounded the Falcons 38-25 and had 13 offensive rebounds for an 18-4 advantage on second-chance points. Fredette was a perfect 7 of 7 from the line.
"I think the pace of the game was affected by the number of fouls called but it was a physical game and both teams played physical," Rose said. "We were able to get to the free throw line and convert our free throws, which was a big plus for us in the game."
Air Force scored the game's first five points, but BYU scored the next seven to take the lead. The Falcons regained the lead at 10-9 on a 3-pointer by Fitzgerald.
But when Emery hit a contested 3-pointer on the other end the Cougars went back on top for good. Seconds later, Emery stole the ball and fed Fredette for a three-point play to push the lead to five. The steal gave Emery 195 for his career, tying him with Ainge.
Fredette converted another three-point play moments later and Charles Abouo hit a 3 to give BYU its biggest lead of the first half at 29-17. Two late baskets by Stephen Rogers helped the Cougars hold a 37-30 lead at the break.
The Cougars opened the second half with two early three-point plays to quickly extend their lead to 43-30. Over the next five minutes, BYU slowly widened the margin to 18.
A 3 by Fredette made it 48-33. Then, a 3 two possessions later by Hartsock, and a 3 by Logan Magnusson and free throw by Kyle Collinsworth gave the Cougars a 58-40 lead. Magnusson's hoop was BYU's fourth-straight from behind the the arc.
"We tried to be conservative on offense and run some clock at times to prevent them from going on a run," Reynolds said. "They are great at scoring points fast and I thought our offensive strategy helped prevent that to a point."
After a basket by Rogers with 13 minutes remaining kept BYU ahead by 18, the Cougars went more than 9 minutes without a basket. Meanwhile, a 3 by Fitzgerald and a follow-up 3 by Tom Fow, and four straight Air Force free throws cut BYU's lead to 65-56. A basket by Abouo finally ended BYU's drought.
"In the end we battled hard but just couldn't come out with a win," Reynolds said.