PROVO -- Air Force's players came to the bench for the final media timeout of Saturday's game at BYU believing they could win.
They didn't pull off the upset, but considering the embarrassment the Falcons felt as they left here last year, making the 15th ranked Cougars nervous was a sign of progress.Taylor Broekhuis' layup and free throw with 3:26 left cut BYU's lead to 67-59. The Falcons didn't get any closer than eight points, as BYU hit some key baskets down the stretch to win, 76-66. The Cougars improved to 16-1 and 2-0 in the Mountain West. The Falcons are now 10-5, and 1-1 in conference play.
There was some angst among the sellout crowd of 22,700 at Marriott Center, which was never the case last year when Air Force was blown out by 43 points.
"We kept fighting," said sophomore guard Mike Fitzgerald, who tied a career best with 13 points. "Last year was a lot different. It shows how much of a different team we are this year."
For most of the game, the Falcons played BYU close. Air Force's biggest problems were the five minutes in the first half when the offense disappeared and the Falcons were stuck on 17 points, and the start of the second half when the defense seemed to stay in the locker room too long.
To start the second half BYU went on a quick 11-3 run, with two 3-point plays, a basket off an offensive rebound and a 3-point shot off another offensive rebound, all in about two minutes.
"You work so hard to get stops, and then you give up a putback," Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds said. "It's demoralizing."
When BYU guard Jimmer Fredette, who hit just 6-of-14 shots in a 22-point performance, pulled up from about 30 feet away and nailed a 3-pointer a couple minutes later, it looked like the Falcons were finished.
But Air Force got some defensive stops and hit some baskets to chip away at the lead.
"I was really impressed with Air Force, their physical toughness and their ability to spread it out and make shots," BYU coach Dave Rose said.
BYU's biggest lead was 18 points with 14 minutes to go. Air Force could have let up at that point, content to have played reasonably well in the first half, but the Falcons didn't think it was over.
"We don't want to fold on anyone," guard Todd Fletcher said. "We decided, even though we were down 18 right now, we're going to make this a game and try to win in the last four minutes."
The Falcons never put a huge scare into BYU in the final three minutes, but felt pretty good about their performance against one of the conference's best teams.
"We're not big into moral victories," senior guard Evan Washington said. "But we know we played well and had a chance to win at times."