“We took it from them,” Wolf Pack point guard Deonte Burton said after the 69-56 overtime victory in front of a crowd of 6,376. “We earned it.”
The Wolf Pack clearly took the victory, outscoring the Falcons 15-2 in the overtime to improve to 12-10 overall and 7-2 in the Mountain West. But that was only after they nearly gave it away.
“We were very excited to see the game go to overtime,” said Wolf Pack coach David Carter after breathing a sigh of relief.
The Wolf Pack dominated the first half. The Pack jumped out to a 13-0 lead as Air Force didn’t score in the first five minutes of the game. A 3-pointer by Burton gave the Wolf Pack a 23-9 lead with seven minutes to go in the first half and a lay-up by Jerry Evans stretched the advantage to 28-10 with 3:45 to go.
Air Force, now 9-11, 3-6 and losers of six of their last seven games, played its worst half of basketball this season in the first half. The Falcons, who entered the game as the second best shooting team (.475) in the Mountain West, were 1-of-18 on 3-pointers and just 4-of-25 from the floor overall.
“That was our biggest halftime lead of the year,” said Carter of the 31-18 Pack lead at the break.
The Pack didn’t know how to handle all the success.
“We came out flat in the second half,” Evans said.
“The guys came out very relaxed,” Carter said. “They weren’t ready to shoot and they weren’t ready to play. When you have a lead like that you have to come out the first five minutes and play like you are behind.”
The Pack, though, played like the game was already over. The 13-point halftime lead evaporated over the first seven minutes of the second half as Air Force’s Justin Hammonds tied the game at 35-35 with a 3-pointer. The Wolf Pack also missed its first six shots of the second half.
“We have to learn how to play 40 minutes,” said Burton, who entered the game as the Mountain West’s leading scorer and finished with just 10 points after missing 6-of-7 3-point attempts.
A free throw by Kamryn Williams gave Air Force its first lead of the game at 39-38 with 12:12 to play in the second half. Marek Olesinski hit a jumper for a 41-39 Air Force lead and Williams converted a layup for a 50-47 Falcons lead with 6:30 to go.
Marqueze Coleman, though, came off the bench to keep the Pack in the game in the second half. Coleman’s free throw tied the game at 39-39, his 3-pointer from the left corner gave the Pack a 42-41 lead and he cut along the baseline for a crowd-pleasing dunk and a 46-45 lead with 8:18 to go.
“The good thing is we never let them (Air Force) get away from us,” Carter said. “They got up by three but we never let them extend it to 10 or 12 points.”
A.J. West had a dunk to cut Air Force’s lead to 50-49 with 5:52 to go and also had a free throw to tie the game at 50-50 with 4:29 left. Air Force, though, jumped out ahead 53-50 with 2:27 left on a lay-up by Hammonds.
“Our offense didn’t come alive until the last few minutes of the second half,” Carter said.
Michael Perez’s jumper cut the deficit to 53-52 with 1:15 to play. Air Force then did its best to make sure the game went to overtime.
The Falcons’ DeLovell Earls made just 1-of-2 free throws for a 54-52 Air Force lead with 31 seconds to play. The Falcons’ Earls and Williams then each committed turnovers on errant passes in the final 28 seconds. Cole Huff then saved the Pack from an embarrassing loss with a lay-up off an offensive rebound with 11 seconds to go to send the game into overtime.
“I think we felt good going into the overtime,” said Evans, who had a team-high 17 points. “It gave us another opportunity to win the game. We’re used to overtime games.”
The Wolf Pack has now played in five overtime games this year (a 3-2 record) after playing just four the last two years combined.
“These are games we’re used to,” Evans said.
“These overtime games are getting us ready for the big games,” West said.
West was the difference in the extra five minutes.
“A switch flipped,” West smiled. “I saw the game on the line and just said I have to go get this W. I was angry at myself because I wasn‘t being productive. I knew I had to produce.”
West had an offensive rebound and a dunk for a 58-56 Wolf Pack lead with 2:58 to go in the overtime. Another offensive rebound by the 6-foot-9 center led to his free throw and a 59-56 lead with 2:14 to play. West turned yet another offensive rebound into a lay-up and a 61-56 lead with 1:15 to go. His two free throws put the Pack up 65-56 with 48 seconds remaining.
West, who had five offensive rebounds, scored seven of his 10 points and pulled down five of his 12 rebounds in the overtime.
“I’m always in his ear,” Burton said. “I’m always telling him, ‘You got to get going. You need to do whatever you need to do to get going.’”
West said Carter also got in his ear a few times.
“Yeah, I got screamed on,“ West smiled.
Carter was just happy to see West flip on the switch at just the right time.
“I kept saying the same thing to him,” Carter said. “Before the game, at halftime, before the overtime. It’s just a learning process for him.”
West also had four blocks in the game.
“I have to stop being the tale of two halves,” West said. “I have to learn how to play the same way the whole game.”
That was the lesson Carter wanted his entire team to learn.
“We showed some toughness,” Carter said. “But we have to play the first 40 minutes like we played that last five.”
The Wolf Pack will now go on the road to play at Utah State on Feb. 5 and San Diego State on Feb. 8.