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Road kill — Falcons prey on Cougars

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Air Force Falcons staged a rare 2 o'clock game Monday afternoon in an effort to attract a large holiday crowd.

That didn't work as just 1,581 fans showed up for the game against BYU, smaller than Saturday's crowd for Utah. However, the early start may have been one of the keys to the Falcons' 74-64 victory over the Cougars at Clune Arena.

How's that?

Well, the early start may not have helped the Falcons so much as it hurt the Cougars. Because BYU isn't allowed to practice on Sundays, as per university policy, their limited preparation time was restricted even more. And the Cougars looked as if they didn't have a clue how to play the Falcons Monday.

The Falcons (7-10) left the Cougars sitting at the starting gate in racing out to a 15-2 lead and never let up on their way to their first Mountain West Conference victory after three losses.

Meanwhile, BYU (12-5) fell to 2-2 in the MWC and two games behind their next opponent, Utah, which swept the same road trip where BYU lost both games. The Utes and Cougars meet Monday at the Huntsman Center in a 10 p.m. contest.

"We were a step slow with a lack of energy from the moment the game started," said BYU coach Steve Cleveland. "It was kind of like we were asleep for about five minutes. It's hard to put my finger on why, but it happened, and we never recovered."

Cleveland wasn't about to blame the loss on the Cougars' lack of preparation time, but he was clearly frustrated about it. Although they flew into Colorado Springs Saturday night, the Cougars weren't able to practice at all Sunday and had to get up early for an 8:30 a.m. shootaround — the first look at tiny Clune Arena for the majority of the Y. players.

Most of the credit for the outcome of the game should go to the Falcons, who came out playing like they were sick and tired of losing close games they felt they should have won. Last week they blew a late seven-point lead in a three-point loss at New Mexico and a six-point lead in an overtime loss to Utah.

AFA coach Joe Scott had talked at length after the Saturday loss to Utah about how his team hadn't yet learned how to win and how he needed to convince his players they were good enough to contend for the MWC title.

"They got smacked in the face right off the bat in the Mountain West, but they came out today and showed me they do understand and they do believe. We just played terrific basketball."

Less than five minutes into the game, Air Force was already up 9-0. In fact the score was Lamoni Yazzie 9, BYU 0, as the little senior guard hit a 3-pointer to open the game and followed with three more baskets against Matt Montague.

Jared Jensen, BYU's best player by far Monday, stopped the Yazzie Show with a bucket, but Joel Gerlach hit a pair of shots to make it 15-2. By halftime it was 42-30 and the Falcons still led 56-44 with 14:42 left.

The Falcons failed on seven of their next eight possessions, but BYU was only able to cut the lead to 58-50 by the 6:52 mark That's when Gerlach hit what Scott called "the shot of the game" with a 3-pointer that pushed the lead back to double figures.

BYU made a strategy decision that backfired by concentrating on shutting down the Falcons' back door opportunities, while leaving their shooters open for 3-pointers.

The Falcons knocked down 13 of 24 3-pointers. Baby-faced freshman Tim Keller went 5-for-5 in the first half and finished with 15 points, while Yazzie and Gerlach both went 3-for-4 and both finished with 19 points.

Jensen led the Cougars with 20 points, and Jimmy Balderson added 14.

E-MAIL: sor@desnews.com