Wichita State’s Carl Hall leaned against the wall near the locker room and said a happy farewell to Air Force. He lumped the Falcons in with Evansville and Northern Iowa as foes he would just as soon skip on the schedule.
“I’m glad we don’t play them again,” he said. “They’re tough, man. Backdoor cut after backdoor cut. There’s a counter to everything. It’s hard to stop.”
WSU survived its trip to the base of the Rocky Mountains with a 72-69 win Sunday at Clune Arena in the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Conference Challenge Series. It took two wild scrambles for a loose ball, clutch free throws by Malcolm Armstead and a missed three-pointer at the buzzer for the Shockers to improve to 8-0.
Hall scored a career-high 21 points, making 9 of 10 shots. Cleanthony Early added 12, 10 in the second half. Armstead, still battling a cold, scored all nine of his points in the second half. He made all four of his free throws in the final minute, giving WSU a 68-63 lead with 54.2 seconds to play and a 72-69 lead with 7.6 remaining.
“Those are situations you live for,” he said. “People say pressure busts pipes, but it also makes diamonds. Just step to the line, get my rythmn with two dribbles and put it in.”
Air Force’s leading scorer Michael Lyons got a decent look at a long three on the final play. It bounced on the rim before bouncing away, emblemantic of Lyons’ night. Averaging 20.7 points, he scored 12 and missed 13 of 17 shots.
"I thought it was going in," Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said. "Mike usually makes that shot, but it was a hard shot late in the game and contested. He just missed it."
Despite his problems, the Falcons (6-2) gave the Shockers an education in the cuts and passing of their Princeton offense, especially in the first half. They scored 22 points in the paint, most of them on layups. WSU defended the cuts better in the second half by getting a shoulder in the way of their opponent. After making 50 percent of its shots in the first half, Air Force dropped to 40.7 in the second.
“We were suppposed to do that whole game,” WSU guard Demetric Williams said. “They were supposed to run into our body when they cut backdoor. Second half, we just picked it up, knowing what we had to do.”
Mike Fitzgerald led the Falcons with a season-high 18 points, 13 more than his average. Air Force missed nine of its 25 free throws. Center Taylor Broekhuis missed 5 of 10, including one with his team down 70-68.
WSU played its best stretch midway through the second half by eliminating turnovers and keeping the Falcons from shooting layups. A nifty bit of ball reversal got Williams an open three for a 57-49 lead. Armstead made a three for a 60-50 lead to cap a 13-1 run. WSU led 62-52 when turnovers — a major issue in the first half — handed the Falcons momentum. Three straight and the missed front end of one-and-one free throw helped Air Force cut the lead to 62-59.
Once back in it, the Falcons stayed close. WSU led 68-63 and 70-65, but couldn’t get stops to put the game away. It led 70-68 when Ron Baker inbounded to Early against an Air Force press. The Falcons trapped and Early had no help. He tried to step through the trap and lost the ball. WSU coach Gregg Marshall tried to call timeout.
“He’s still new, so he just wasn’t ready for the contact allowed at the end of a ballgame,” Marshall said. “I put him in a bad spot by having him in and then I didn’t call timeout when I saw the trap. I was late.”
The Falcons called timeout with 23 seconds to play after the turnover. Todd Fletcher missed a baseline jumper, setting off a bloodthirsty scrum for the ball. Baker almost grabbed it. Lyons had it while moving toward the basket and got undercut and lost the ball. Broekhuis ended up with it and Hall fouled him with 8.1 seconds to play. He missed the first and made the second to cut WSU’s lead to 70-69. Armstead’s free throws gave WSU its final cushion.