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Utah Utes basketball: Improved Air Force now a dangerous opponent

Utah guard Carlon Brown (left) leads the Utes in scoring while coming off the bench.
Utah guard Carlon Brown (left) leads the Utes in scoring while coming off the bench.
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

AIR FORCE ACADEMY — Until Saturday, the Utah men's basketball team probably viewed tonight's game as a pretty certain win against the worst team in the Mountain West Conference, a team it has already beaten by 17 points this season, a team that was coming off a 43-point loss to BYU.

Then came Air Force's game against league-leading New Mexico, in which it had a great chance to win — and probably should have won — before falling 59-56. And no, it wasn't here at Clune Arena, where the Utes play tonight at 6:30 p.m. It was at the legendary Pit, in front of 14,586 rowdy Lobo fans.

So what suddenly turned the cellar-dwelling Falcons into a team that nearly knocked off the No. 12 team in the country, in what would have been perhaps the biggest upset in college basketball this year?

According to the low-key Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds, it was pretty simple.

"We competed really well, were successful at executing our offense and shot the ball better," he said.

The Falcons forced the Lobos to play at their tempo and made their shots for a change, hitting 21-of-41 field goals, the first time they'd been above 50 percent since the start of league play.

Air Force actually led with less than 20 seconds to play, before New Mexico's Darington Hobson scored on a putback shot to put the Lobos ahead and then the Falcons missed two shots in the final five seconds.

Another big factor for the Falcons' improved play is their health. After having several players out with various injuries, they're as healthy as they've been all season.

Grant Parker, who played briefly in the game at Salt Lake City after coming off a pelvis injury, has scored in double figures in all but one game since and had 17 points against New Mexico, including 15 in the second half.

"Air Force is a very difficult opponent to play," said Utah coach Jim Boylen. "They are playing better basketball and are healthy. We had a good game with them last time when they were short-handed, and now they're full strength."

Parker leads the Falcons with a 13.8 scoring average, and guard Evan Washington is the only other player who averages in double figures at 11.1 ppg. The Falcons are also expected to start Michael Lyons (7.0 ppg), Mike McLain (4.1 ppg) and Todd Fletcher (3.8 ppg).

"I think my guys respect Air Force," Boylen said. "Their style makes them a difficult game. They have a different style, a different system. The ball changes sides and you have to be alert. It's a hard system to guard with a lot of stuff going on."

The Utes were led by Marshall Henderson's 22 points in their first meeting with the Falcons. He'll be joined in the starting lineup by Luka Drca, Jace Tavita, David Foster and either Shawn Glover or Jay Watkins. Carlon Brown will see a lot of time off the bench, and look for increased minutes for Kim Tillie, who has had a couple of good games.

The Utes will return home for a pair of home games, Saturday at 4 p.m. against Wyoming and next Wednesday night, March 3, against BYU.

Utes on the air

Utah (12-14, 5-7 MWC) at Air Force (9-16, 1-11)

Tonight, 6:30 p.m.

Clune Arena, Air Force Academy, Colo.

TV: The mtn. Radio: 700 AM