Matt "Nellie" Nelson couldn't hold off the Air Force Falcons by himself.
The CSU center fought a tough defense that allowed the Rams to shoot under 50 percent from the field for the third-straight game. On ESPN's "Big Monday," in front of 3,739 fans, including a loud section of students who made the drive from Colorado Springs, the Falcons (15-8, 6-2 Mountain West Conference) handed the Rams (9-12, 1-7 MWC) their sixth-straight loss by a convincing 59-47 score.
"We knew they'd play us physical down low," Nelson said. "It seemed that I always had a guy in front or behind me."
The Rams did come out strong to start the game behind Nelson and freshman Jason Smith. The 7-footers combined for CSU's first eight points and put the Rams up early with a 6-0 run to start the game. But Air Force fought back with a pair of 3-pointers to make it an 8-6 game. The rest of the half was spent running the court while both teams looked for baskets. They were hard to come by, but Jon Rakiecki hit a 3-pointer to take the Rams into the half with a 22-18 lead.
Nelson scored 10 of his game-high 18 points in the first half and pulled down a game-high eight rebounds.
The second half brought about a 3-point barrage by the Falcons, as their first five made shots were from behind the arch. The CSU zone looked flat most of the second half and left Falcon shooters open on the outside on a consistent basis. Because of the zone, Air Force didn't bother driving to the basket for most of the game.
"It's disappointing that we came out and didn't defend the 3," said CSU head coach Dale Layer. "We got caught looking at the ball."
The Falcons had three players score in double figures but were led by sophomore Dan Nwaelele, who tied his career-high with 18 points while draining 4-of-7 of his 3-pointers.
In the last few minutes of the game, CSU tried to push the ball up the floor to score some quick baskets but couldn't get the shots off. Turnovers were huge down the stretch and helped the Falcons to victory, although CSU held Air Force to 36 percent from the field. The Falcons were still able to make baskets and hold off CSU when it mattered most.
"We started to get a little impatient," said Micheal Morris, the only other Ram to score in double digits with 10 points. "We just have to come out and hard, and play smarter."
The Rams' schedule does not get any easier as they travel to Salt Lake City and Provo for games against Utah and BYU, respectively. Utah is ranked No. 15 in the ESPN/Coaches Poll.
Saturday's game versus Utah is set for 7 p.m. followed by the game at BYU at 8 p.m. on Monday.