BYU played Air Force Thursday night in Colorado Springs, and it was not a pretty sight. The Cougars shot 30 percent from the field. They missed their first five free throws. They were hit with a costly technical in the second half. They were beat up the floor on fast breaks. Afterward, they were detained in the locker room for 15 minutes while their coaches took turns chewing them out at full volume.
And these guys were the winners.The Cougars defeated lowly Air Force 68-60, but don't be fooled by the final score. The Falcons - a team BYU beat by 21 in Provo; a team that had lost its previous two games by a combined 51 points; a team that owns 7-15/1-9 records - cut the Cougars' lead to one basket on several occasions in the second half, only to be turned back by Mark Heslop's timely treys.
"Oh, we're happy," said Reid, emerging from the loud post-game locker room. "We're just emotional. We're tickled with this win. We just came off a tough loss. We're very happy."
They should be. While BYU was beating Air Force, UTEP was losing to New Mexico. That means BYU, New Mexico and UTEP are all tied for first place in the Western Athletic Conference with 8-3 records, a half-game ahead of Utah.
"That hurts my feelings," said a smiling Reid when he heard the news of UTEP's defeat. "No, really, that's a great thing for our situation."
BYU, 17-4, meets LaSalle Saturday night as a prelude to next Thursday's anticipated showdown with Utah.
Air Force's deliberate, physical style of play tends to create confusion for most offenses, and so it did with BYU, which leads the WAC in scoring (80 points per game) and shooting (51 percent). Center Gary Trost, a 59 percent shooter, scored 17 points, but made only 3 of 10 shots.
"Air Force dictates the tempo," says Reid.
The only Cougar who seemed immune to it all was Heslop, who scored 15 points - all in the second half - hitting 4 of 5 treys. Heslop took only one shot in the first half.
The Cougars were able to win because they utilized their considerable height advantage to outrebound the Falcons 45-28 (20-6 on the offensive boards).
With Heslop covered, the Cougars couldn't shake the Falcons for most of the first half. They scored just two field goals in the first eight minutes of play - a pair of treys by Nathan Call. It was Call's replacement, Mark Santiago, who carried the team for much of the first half. Santiago, who averages 7 minutes and .9 points per game, scored seven of his nine points in the first half, including a trey that helped BYU take a 31-21 halftime lead.
The Falcons scored eight unanswered points to start the second half, making it a two-point game. Enter Heslop. He sank a three-point shot to give BYU a five-point cushion. Moments later, he made another trey to give BYU a 39-31 lead.
Again Air Force made a run, closing to within three points, and again Heslop made a trey to give BYU a six-point lead.
And then once more Air Force made a run, this time because of a technical on Santiago after he was whistled for a foul. Otis Jones made the foul shots, George Irvin made the two technical free throws and then, with a chance to tie the score on the resulting possession, Jones committed a traveling violation. Seconds later, Heslop - who else? - made another three-point bucket to give BYU a 45-40 lead.
But about that technical: "The official said that (Santiago) said something," said Reid. "Santiago says he didn't say it. I'm going to get to the bottom of it . . . Someone's not telling the truth."
"They said I said B.S.," said Santiago. "That's not what I said. I was over on the bench, and I told the coaches that (the foul call) is a bunch of crap. I don't know how they even heard me over there."
The Cougars stretched their lead to 54-45, and with three minutes left the Falcons began the foul-for-profit routine. The Cougars proceded to make 14 of 18 foul shots, but the Falcons were able to cut BYU's lead to 65-60 with 28 seconds left on Dale French's trey. Heslop - of course - made another foul shot, and the Falcons never got closer.
"My shot felt good tonight," said Heslop.
And now the Cougars are back in first place. With five games to go, it's a four-team race to the finish.