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Give Falcons an inch, and they’ll take another inch

It’s nights like Tuesday that I thought I would miss Joe Scott.

Joe Scott was Jim Boylen before Jim Boylen became head basketball coach at Utah. One of those fiery types, Scott would bend one of your ears as if it were a wire coat hanger. Then he would yell in the other one.

But that’s not why I miss Joe Scott. The Air Force basketball team always has played hard, played with pride, played with passion, played as if its collective hair were on fire. When Scott was their coach, the Falcons also would win now and then.

In four seasons from 2000 to 2004, Scott’s Air Force teams won 51 games while losing 63. At Air Force, that’s great. At Air Force, they salute you for a record like that. And call you "Sir." In 16 seasons under Reggie Minton, the guy Scott replaced, the Falcons were 150-296. They told Minton to get down and give them 20.

During Scott’s final season in Colorado Springs, the Falcons finished 22-7 and 12-2 in the Mountain West to earn the top seed in the conference tournament.

Air Force. Top seed. Pigs flew. Shaq made free throws. Julia Roberts married Lyle Lovett. Jupiter aligned with Mars. Peace guided the planets. It was groovy. It was wacky. It was wild.

The Falcons drew North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They led most of the way before the Tar Heels shut their back door. North Carolina won by 11. It was closer than that. Ask the guys who took UNC and laid the points. Ask Roy Williams.

Scott did such a masterful job of coaching and bending ears that Air Force went right on winning even after he left for Princeton, his alma mater as well as his style of offense.

The Falcons went 18-12 in Chris Mooney’s one year as coach. They went 50-16 during Jeff Bzdelik’s two seasons.

Now it’s Jeff Reynolds’ turn, and Air Force has reverted to being … well, Air Force. The Falcons still play hard. They still singe their sideburns. They just don’t win as much. Or in the conference, at all.

Air Force had lost 21 consecutive Mountain West games heading into Tuesday’s against the Rebels. The Falcons’ wins came at the expense of Western State, Dickinson State, Charleston Southern, North Carolina Central, Prairie View A&M, UC Davis, Texas-Pan American and Niagara.

Virtually every team Air Force (8-11, 0-6 MWC) has beaten has either a direction, a hyphen, an ampersand, a Dickinson or a natural wonder in its name.

On Tuesday night, Air Force scared the daylights out of one with a U-N-L-V in its name.

The Rebels pulled out a 60-50 win. It was closer than that. Ask the guys who took the Rebels and laid the 19 points. Ask Lon Kruger.

"It felt great to win. We struggled for 40 minutes," UNLV’s coach said after he and the crowd of 14,175 at the Thomas & Mack Center exhaled like one of those guys who swims the English Channel.

Air Force led 24-21 at halftime. Air Force trailed briefly early in the first half. Air Force did not trail again until Kendall Wallace got his mojo back in the second half.

Wallace found the jump shot he had left on the mesas around Albuquerque, N.M., canning four consecutive 3-pointers to turn that halftime deficit into a second-half lead.

Afterward, Kruger said the Rebels (17-4, 5-2) needed every one of those baskets on a night when most thought they would need only to show up.

But that’s the Falcons. Give ’em an inch, and they’ll take another inch. Give ’em a chance, and they’ll play you tough for 30 minutes. Or 35. On Tuesday, it was more like 39. Air Force trailed just 53-48 before Tre’Von Willis hit a 3-pointer with 48 seconds to play.

The Falcons’ hair finally stopped burning.

"When they make their shots and get their heads up, you know it’s going to be a battle," fire marshal Kruger said.

Sometimes, when there are battles, there is collateral damage. Rebels starting guard Derrick Jasper sprained his knee in the first half. Kruger said he’ll have an MRI today.

Not good. Not good at all.

Sort of like Air Force.

Or so I thought.

Contact Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352.

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