Utah State was shooting 68 percent from the free-throw line, and senior Allen Gordon had missed three second-half free throws, but none of that crossed Gordon's mind as he stepped to the line with :01 left and the Aggies down by one Friday night.
Gordon thought only of making the first free throw to tie the game, the second to win it and then playing defense while Air Force took the ball out of bounds for one last attempt.Gordon made both free throws, putting the Aggies ahead 64-63, but Air Force did get off one final shot that would have counted had it gone in.
It didn't, and Utah State, now 3-4 with three straight wins, moved into tonight's championship of the Met Life Classic at the U. of San Francisco at 9 MST. The Ags, who won the inaugural Classic in 1986, play San Francisco - a winner over Vermont, 77-73 late Friday night - in the title game.
Utah State led by 13 points in the first half and was in defensive control, despite a poor shooting night, but Air Force used three-pointers to crawl close midway through the second half, finally taking a 46-45 lead on a Chris Lowry home run and going up 48-45 when the Aggies turned the ball over and fouled Clark James, who made two free throws.
A Jay Goodman steal and Gordon basket gave the Ags a 49-48 lead at 9:30, and a Goodman basket off a Falcon turnover put USU up 51-48 a minute later. But AF kept coming back, and the score knotted at 51, 53, 55, 57, 59 and 61. Goodman put USU up 62-61 with :29 left with a free throw, but Brent Roberts scored at :07 for a 63-62 Falcon advantage.
The Aggies called time out at :06, and Randy Funk inbounded under the Falcon basket to Gordon, whose orders were to find Goodman or Kendall Youngblood.
"I see my man retreating, and I push the ball up as fast as I can and see Youngblood on my left," Gordon said. At the free-throw line he crossed his dribble and Youngblood cut on the baseline, but the passing lane wasn't open. "With time running out like that, you have no choice but to take the layup, and the referee called a blocking foul," Gordon said.
"We're just glad the official had guts enough to call it; a lot of times they'll just let it go with time running out," said Aggie Coach Kohn Smith.
With about four minutes left, Air Force scored four straight points to throw a scare into Utah State, up 57-55 on two Youngblood free throws. Roberts scored a layup, and Funk fouled allowing Roberts free throws for a 59-57 lead.
Goodman made consecutive steals, feeding Youngblood for a layin and scoring a basket of his own at 2:52 for a 61-59 lead that held until 1:01, when Irvin tied the game for the last time with a jumper, 61-61. Goodman made it 62-61 with :29 left. Funk then blocked one Air Force shot, but the ball oddly bounced to Roberts for a layup to give the Falcons their last lead, 63-62.
"What a great game down the stretch," said Smith, conceding the Aggies didn't play that well, particularly during long basketless minutes in both the first and second halves. "Those stretches where we struggle," he said. "We get two or three turnovers, and it's like you're walking in sand and you can't get your feet out." He hopes to correct that for tonight's game.
"I think you'll see us play better," he said. "I think we'll have to."
Lowry led all scorers with 18 points, while Youngblood had 16 and Falcon Irvin 13. Funk, 4-for-4 in the first few minutes of the game, finished with 12 and Goodman 11. Gordon had nine, going 7-for-10 from the free-throw line.