Interesting how one team can work as one or be their worst enemy.
After great defensive efforts in recent high-caliber wins, San Jose State (19-12, 10-8 MW) was simply outplayed by Air Force (14-17, 5-13 MW) Saturday afternoon until well into the second-half.
While the Spartans were shocked out their shoes into a 20-point deficit, they returned the favor in spades in a scintillating 63-61 win.
Certainly, a flat, ugly first-half was not what head coach Tim Miles and staff was expecting at all. The Falcons simply out hustled the Spartans to a 39-25 half-time lead, while the Spartans flailed into seven turnovers and were out rebounded by 11.
Perhaps SJS’ energy, emotion and effort were stripped down a few notches knowing the Spartans were getting their first Mountain West tournament bye with a fifth seed already locked in.
“Air Force was cooking with gas and we couldn’t stop them,” said Miles on calling early substitutions, different defenses and early time outs. “Out of spite, we just started playing different guys.”
Case-in-point, Spartan freshman guard Leo Torbor; with four minutes left in the half, Torbor’s energy and activity immediately showed the effort deficit SJS had been lacking.
And as Air Force showed purpose and passion exactly how Mountain West teams on any given day could show out regardless of their record, Spartan guard Omari Moore looked to be the only one who begged to differ.
With 15 points in the first-half, Moore realized it was upon himself to carry the team until reinforcements appeared. Moore’s dominance only ramped up as he reached a game-high and career-high 33 points.
“It was a matter if Omari was going to swallow his tongue because he was so tired,” said Miles in awe of Moore’s performance. “I’m thinking how do we ride him out; win the game and still keep him up right.”
The second-half saw Moore continue to try and will the Spartans to at least stay in striking distance, as the Falcons opened the half with six unanswered points and a 20-point lead.
“We were getting killed in the paint,” said Miles. Our bigger lineup wasn’t doing it and our screen-and-roll coverage was bad. We went smaller and it helped a little bit.”
“Also Ibrahima was big on defense and then we end up winning the paint,” said Miles as the Spartans surged.
Half way into the second half, Miles’ next substitution shakeup came on; this time with walk-on Ryen Perry (who was a student manager last season).
“I knew I was going to play Ryen at some point,” said Miles. “He’s really smart and gritty and he can shoot.”
In Perry’s 12-minute stint, his 3-pointer and defensive energy provided the additional spark for the Spartans to roar back, as the other Spartan suspects, led by guard Alvaro Cardenas 10-points, came alive.
Forward Tibet Gorener’s only 3 and score of the game with 4:06 gave the Spartans its first lead and forward Rob Viahola’s only two scores helped keep Air Force at bay, while the Spartan defense finally pressed down on the Falcons; cooling them off to 28% shooting.
On cue to end the game? Moore’s block of Falcon’s Carter Murphy on a driving layup.
“It was a gutty win,” said Miles. “There were a lot of teams that came in here and lost. For us to fight back from 20 down was pretty cool.”
In an already remarkable turnaround season, the Spartans enter the Mountain West conference as the fifth-seed next Thursday against Nevada.