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Clutch Cougars avoid upset-minded Falcons

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — It took a couple of months, but BYU apparently has figured out how to win conference games on the road.

The reward is a share of the Mountain West Conference championship with Utah and Wyoming. It marks BYU's first league title since 1993.

Earlier this season, the Cougars tried grabbing large first-half leads, like they did at Wyoming and UNLV, but BYU squandered those leads and lost those games.

Against San Diego State, New Mexico and again Saturday afternoon at Air Force, the Cougars followed a similar routine — they came, they saw, they trailed, they hung around, they made clutch plays in the waning moments, they conquered.

Said forward Mekeli Wesley, who scored 25 points against the Falcons: "Our big-time players made big-time plays."

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Down by two points with 5.8 seconds remaining, guard Terrell Lyday dropped in a pair of free throws to lift the Cougars to a 51-50 nail-biting victory over the Falcons in their Mountain West Conference regular-season finale at Clune Arena.

"We squeezed it out," a relieved Lyday said.

BYU (21-8, 10-4) has won three of its last four road games, includ-ing two in a row. A loss to Air Force (8-20, 3-11) would have been a major blow to the Cougars' NCAA Tournament at-large hopes.

But first things first. Depending on the results of Saturday's late games, the Cougars could face the No. 7 seed Falcons again Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference Tournament in Las Vegas. For that to happen, BYU would have to be the No. 2 seed. BYU and Air Force would play Thursday at 3:30 p.m. MST.

If BYU is a No. 3 seed, it would play San Diego State at 7 p.m.

After Saturday's contest, the Cougars were praying that the Falcons would not be their next opponent.

Air Force, fresh off its upset of Utah two nights earlier, led BYU by 10 points, 40-30, with about 12 minutes left in the game. At that point, coach Steve Cleveland turned to assistant coach Dave Rose and said, "This is like being down 20 to any other team."

Indeed. Air Force's deliberate, time-consuming offense has a tendency of magnifying any deficit.

BYU's offensive game plan was to either penetrate or get the ball to Wesley. "We had to go to our money guy inside," Cleveland said.

Wesley scored 10 of his team's final 15 points, including seven free throws and a giant 3-pointer with 3:30 remaining that pulled the Cougars to within one point. "Mekeli's 3-pointer was the biggest shot of the game," Cleveland said.

After the Falcons' Tom Bellairs scored a basket and was fouled by Wesley with 17.3 ticks left, Air Force led 50-49. But the sophomore forward missed the free throw. On BYU's ensuing possession, Lyday slashed to the hoop and was fouled by Falcon senior Jarvis Croff.

Following a time out, Lyday stepped to the free throw line with just under six seconds remaining. He swished the first attempt. The second hit the front rim, bounced around and fell through the net. "It felt so good to get those shots down," said Lyday, who had missed a crucial free throw a couple of minutes earlier. "It was like a cloud lifted from me."

BYU was ahead 51-50, but the game wasn't over. The Falcons had time for a final shot. Trent Whiting partially blocked Lamoni Yazzie's 3-point attempt, which missed the mark as time expired. The Falcon guard, who had made three 3-pointers on the day, fell to the ground after releasing the ball, but no foul was called.

The Cougars were so excited, they ran off court, forgetting to shake hands with the Falcon players. Cleveland stayed behind for a few moments, though, to chat with Croff and Air Force coach Joe Scott.

BYU's troubles with the Falcons began at the outset. Air Force's first three baskets were 3-pointers. "They hit those 3-pointers early," Cleveland said. "That gave them confidence."

"They held the ball and did a great job running their stuff to perfection," Lyday said. "I was sick of guarding (Croff)." In his final home game, Croff scored 12 points.

Matt Montague made one of the game's biggest plays at the end of the first half when he stole a pass and shot a 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded. The Cougar guard missed, but he was fouled. He made all three free throws to send BYU into the locker room tied at 26.

To start the second half, the Cougars scored on only one of their first nine possessions before they chipped away at the Falcons' lead and eventually pulled out the win.

Question is, can BYU continue its roll on the road by winning some games on a neutral court in Las Vegas?


E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com