Down by one point to rival Air Force with 25 seconds to go on Saturday night, the Rams seemed poised to pull off their first conference win of the year.
Following a timeout, junior guard Marcus Walker rounded a screen on the right side, grabbed a pass from center court and drove toward the basket. With two defenders in his face, the Mountain West’s leading scorer went for a bank shot from about four feet out. The shot sailed high, bouncing over the rim and into the waiting arms of the Falcons’ Anwar Johnson.
“I was just trying to make a play,” a dejected Walker said after the game.
The sigh that went out of Moby Arena after that shot was an experienced one, well versed in the disappointment of a season’s worth of close calls and near misses. For the second game in a row, the Rams lost by two points – 61 to 59. The loss extended their winless streak to 13, 0-12 in conference. The Rams haven’t lost 13 straight games since the 1949-1950 season.
“We can sit here and feel sorry for ourselves and have a pity party,” Rams coach Tim Miles said. “You have to earn victories, and we did not do that. Effort is one thing. How about a little bit of execution, for crying out loud?”
The lack of execution Miles talked about manifested itself in a lopsided turnover margin and an abysmal team free throw percentage down the stretch. The Rams turned the ball over 15 times, bouncing the ball off their feet, misfiring passes and dribbling into traps, leading to 17 Air Force points. The Falcons surrendered the ball just eight times in the game.
CSU also shot just 55.6 percent from the line, 10-18. By contrast the Falcons hit 15-19 free throws, 78.9 percent.
“That was a self-inflicted loss in my eyes,” Miles said. “Flat out you can bounce the ball off your foot only so many times before it ends up costing you. You miss so many free throws before it ends up costing you.”
Just 17 short minutes before the pivotal play to Walker, the Rams looked almost ready to snap their losing streak. They were up by 12 with 17:18 to go and were controlling the game with extremely accurate outside shooting and solid defense. That’s when things started to fall apart. The Falcons went on a 9-0 run with 15 minutes to go, followed by a 13-1 run with nine minutes left to gain the lead for the first time in the game.
They would ride the lead out, hitting four of their last five free throws to ice the victory.
CSU senior center Stuart Creason, who finished with 10 points, five boards and three blocks, said after the game that he felt like the team hadn’t given up on the season yet and would continue to build toward the conference tournament in mid-March.
“I’ve only got five games left and if guys are going to give up on me, there’s no way I can possibly get a conference win this season or get a Mountain West Conference tournament run going,” Creason said. “Hopefully the guys will all bind together and we can do something later this season.”
The Rams were led offensively by Walker, who had 18 points. Freshman forward Andre McFarland had 14 points and three blocks, and was 4-6 from three-point range. As a team, the Rams shot 55 percent from 3, 11-20 (10-15 in the first half).
Air Force was led by guards Anwar Johnson and Andrew Henke, who each finished with 14 points. Henke added 10 rebounds to finish with the game’s only double-double.
CSU will host conference rival Wyoming on Wednesday in Moby Arena. Game time is set for 6 p.m.
Sports writer Nick Hubel can be reached at email@example.com.