Mar 112004
 
Authors: Vince Blaser

DENVER The last time the CSU men�s basketball team beat a

team this badly, it was playing at the Pepsi Center.

CSU knocked off Pepperdine 91-65 on Jan. 3 in Denver, only to

battle injuries and lose 11 of its next 14 games, including

seven-straight losses.

On Thursday, the Rams had a glorious return to the Mile High

City, upsetting regular-season Mountain West Conference champion

Air Force 60-48 in the first round of the Mountain West Conference

Tournament. After winning the conference tournament in Las Vegas

last year as the No. 6 seed, the Rams will try to repeat this

weekend.

CSU will face UNLV in the semifinals at 10 p.m. Friday on

ESPN.

Lesser men would’ve quit four or five weeks ago, Rams head coach

Dale Layer said of the team’s struggles. But these guys made big

plays and never stopped practicing hard.

The Rams won the game on a dominant stretch to end the first

half and start the second. After Air Force tied the score 18-18

with about four minutes left in the first half, the Rams went on a

7-2 run to close the half, then exploded on an 18-3 run in the

first 6:23 of the second half to lead 43-23.

“We didn’t play particularly well for 30 minutes of the game,”

Air Force head coach Joe Scott said. “I thought they won the game

in the first half.”

CSU flew all over the court during the run, forcing turnovers,

blocking shots and passing the ball for open looks. Junior forward

Matt Williams, who didn’t shoot in the first half, scored nine

points early in the second half before picking up his fourth

foul.

CSU shut down the Falcons’ outside shooting threats. Air Force

made just made 4-of-14 3-point attempts on the night and shot just

38 percent in the first half. The 48 points by the Falcons were the

lowest total CSU has given up in a game this season.

“In practice we emphasized taking the 3-ball away,” center Matt

Nelson said.

The Rams started playing tentatively, however, and the Falcons

responded with a 21-7 run of their own to cut the lead to six

points with 1:52 to play. The Falcons three-guard tandem of A.J.

Kuhle, Tim Keller and Antoine Hood starting shooting the ball

better, and pressure defense kept the Rams out of the rhythm they

had early in the second half. CSU took only eight shots, missing

them all, in the last 12:54 of the game.

“We tried to shorten the game, but we got a little too

tentative,” Layer said. “But we forced them to do one of two

things: shoot quick, which they didn’t do, or shorten the game and

take our chances.”

Air Force would get no closer than six, however, and Rams guards

Dwight Boatner and Jon Rakiecki hit key free throws down the

stretch to seal the victory. CSU had one of its best performances

of the season from the line, hitting 20-of-23 free throws in the

second half after missing the team’s only attempt in the first

half.

“We couldn’t get it below six,” Scott said. “They did a good job

of not turning the ball over and hitting their free throws down the

stretch.”

The Rams shot 52 percent in the first half on the heels of a

fast start by senior forward Ronnie Clark. Clark went 5-for-5 from

the floor for 10 first-half points. He led the Rams with 14 points

and eight rebounds.

The Rams have had problems with turnovers all season, but were

even with the Falcons on turnovers Thursday with 14 a piece.

Center Matt Nelson was a non-factor in the first nine minutes of

the game but was instrumental in the Rams’ big run. He finished

with 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting. Four Rams players finished in

double figures.

“(Nelson is) a big guy and takes up a lot of space,” said Falcon

forward Joel Gerlach. “We always had a couple of guys around him,

which opened up their guard play.”

CSU beat both New Mexico and UNLV at home, but lost to the teams

on the road.

“That was a huge victory,” Boatner said. “We knew all along that

we could play with anybody in this league.”

 

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