LAS VEGAS — Over the years, the Utah basketball team has played this same type of game against Air Force about a dozen times.
Nearly every possession lasts the full 35 seconds of the shot clock . . . both teams play hard-nosed, tenacious defense . . . the Falcons either lead much of the way or stay close to the Utes throughout . . . and in the end, Utah always wins.
That happened again in Thursday's first round of the Mountain West Conference tournament as the Utes came from behind in the final minutes to escape with a 42-38 victory at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The win puts the Utes (24-6) in tonight's semifinals at 10 p.m. (MST) against UNLV (20-9), which had little trouble beating San Diego State 83-67 Thursday night.
For the average fan, the low-scoring Ute triumph may not have been a scintillating game, although the two coaches thought otherwise.
Utah coach Rick Majerus called it a "great" game, while AFA coach Joe Scott said it was a "terrific" game.
"Air Force is a very smart, shrewd team," said Majerus. "I thought our guys did a good job of staying with it."
For most of the game, it appeared the Utes — playing without senior leader Britton Johnsen — might be headed for an early exit from the ourney. The Utes didn't get their first lead until just 2:30 remained in the contest.
Tim Frost, who led the Utes with 12 points, hit six free throws in the final 1:09, including four in the final 15 seconds to clinch the victory. Nick Jacobson, who hit a key 3-point basket, the Utes' last field goal of the night with 3:13 left, scored 10 points.
Air Force was led by A.J. Kuhle with 12 points and Joel Gerlach, who had a chance to tie the score with 16 seconds left, with 10.
The Falcons jumped out to a 5-0 lead and led by as many as eight points before taking a 21-18 lead at halftime. The Utes tied the game at 23, but went seven minutes without a score as the Falcons took a 28-23 lead.
The Utes came back, but still trailed 33-30 when Jacobson hit his big shot. It came right after a timeout off a broken play, according to Jacobson.
"It was a set play, but it got a little messed up and (Marc) Jackson got wiped out and I shot over him," he said. "We were trying to run a play, but I got a good look so I fired it."
The shot came early on the shot clock and from three feet behind the 3-point arc and pulled the Utes even. Freshman Bryant Markson — getting more key minutes with Johnsen out — was fouled driving the baseline and swished both free throws to give the Utes its first lead of the night at 35-33.
After Tim Keller missed an open 3-pointer from the top of the key, Frost hit two free throws and then Marc Jackson added one before Kuhle made a three-point play inside.
Jacobson, Utah's best free throw shooter, had a chance to put the game away, but missed a pair of foul shots with 24.8 seconds left.
The Falcons set up a play for Gerlach to drive on the right side against Markson, but his scoop shot hit the bottom of the backboard and Frost sewed up the game with four more free throws.
The poor free-throw shooting (14 of 25) bothered Majerus afterward, especially considering they have been so hot at the line lately, making an astounding 85 percent over the last eight games. Jacobson, who missed some key free throws in last week's loss to Colorado State, also felt bad.
"I feel terrible about my misses," he said. "I jeopardized the success of the team and it's something I've got to remedy. I think we'll all be better from the line tomorrow."
For the Falcons, their season ended at 12-16, their best record in 15 years. They're making progress under Scott, but it's still tough losing all the close games.
"It's frustrating," said Gerlach. "In the past couple of years we've had a lot of games like that. It hurts — that's the bottom line."
GAME NOTES: This marks the second straight year the Utes will meet the Rebels in the semifinals. Last year UNLV prevailed 76-70 . . . Only 15 players played in the game as the Utes used just eight players and the Falcons seven. Kuhle played all 40 minutes, while Jacobson led Utah with 36 minutes . . . Tim Drisdom only played 19 minutes, but led his team with seven rebounds. With Marc Jackson getting six, it meant the Ute point guards had nearly half of the team's 28 rebounds.
In other Mountain West tournament games Thursday:
COLORADO STATE 74, WYOMING 71: The sixth-seeded Rams upset the No. 3 Cowboys in a back-and-forth battle where the lead changed 20 times. CSU connected on all 10 free-throw attempts in the final three minutes for the victory.
Trailing 68-66 with 1:29 left, the Rams used two free throws each from Matt nelson, Andy Birley, Derrick Stevens and Brian Greene for the victory. A would-be game-tying 3-pointer from the Cowboys' Donta Richardson missed at the buzzer.
Nelson led all scorers with 25 points, while Greene added 14 and Ronnie Clark 10. Four Wyoming players finished in double figures, paced by 20 from center Uche Nsonwu-Amadi and 17 from Richardson.
CSU (17-13 overall) advances to meet BYU in Friday's semifinals. Wyoming (20-10) is considered a "bubble team" for NCAA Tournament participation.
UNLV 83, SAN DIEGO ST. 67: Marcus Banks had 22 points, seven assists and six steals to lead No. 4 seed UNLV past No. 5 seed San Diego State 83-67 Thursday night. UNLV (20-9) now plays top-seeded Utah in the semifinals Friday night, while Colorado State plays BYU in the first semifinal.
Tony Bland led San Diego State (15-13), with 17 points and five assists.
UNLV led by as many as 11 in the first half and led 41-32 at halftime. The Rebels pulled away in the second half, building three 18-point leads, the last at 67-49 with 6:49 to play.
San Diego State cut the lead to 70-59 with 4:47 left, but got no closer.
UNLV outscored San Diego State 44-26 in the paint and made 55.8 percent of its shots.
Banks went 11-for-11 from the free throw line and UNLV made 21-of-27 free throws as a team.
James Peters added 19 points for UNLV and Jermaine Lewis had 16 points and six assists.