Falcons reach NIT final four in NYC
By Wayne Amann, U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
/ Published March 22, 2007
U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. --
Air Force handily won its first two games in the National Invitation Tournament, but had to survive a nail biter to advance to the semifinals.
Jacob Burtschi's lay up with 7.7 seconds left was the game winner as the Falcons held on for a dramatic 52-51 win over DePaul March 21, in front of an ear-splitting, near capacity crowd of 5,672 at Clune Arena and a national television audience on ESPN2.
Burtschi's bucket was his only score after halftime.
"I was finally able to make a shot in the second half, thank goodness," Burtschi said. "I didn't care that I went 0-for-7 until that last shot because that's the most important one."
The outcome was in doubt until DePaul's Draelon Burns, who led all scorers with 18 points, including five 3-pointers, missed a three off the rim from the corner at the buzzer.
The miss triggered a flood of fans onto the court to celebrate the biggest win in the history of the academy basketball program.
West Region No. 1 seed Air Force moves on to the NIT final four against South Region top seed Clemson of the Atlantic Coast Conference in New York City's Madison Square Garden March 27. The Tigers advanced by beating Syracuse, 74-70, at home.
"Our guys are incredible. Their will, desire and dedication are incredible," said Air Force head coach Jeff Bzdelik. "I'm so happy for them and our fans to get rewarded like this."
Air Force (26-8) eliminated Austin Peay, 75-51, and Georgia, 83-52, both at Clune, prior to its quarterfinal victory over DePaul (20-14) from the Big East Conference.
The Falcons and Blue Demons traded baskets throughout much of the first half until Air Force center Nick Welch's lay up gave his team a 29-26 halftime lead.
A 3-pointer by Wilson Chandler capped a 15-5 DePaul run to open the second half and gave the visitors from Chicago their biggest lead of the game, 41-34, with 13:48 to play.
Air Force battled back with a 7-0 run to tie. A 3-pointer and a pair of free throws by point guard Matt McCraw fueled the rally that rejuvenated his team and the crowd.
"We could have thrown in the towel," said McCraw who finished with a team-high 13 points as did Burtschi. "Sometime teams fold. But, this team has too much heart."
Welch and Dan Nwaelele added 10 points apiece.
The Falcons are honoring the six air and space expeditionary wings in the Air Force by wearing patches from each unit on their uniforms.
"The Air Force, and the military as a whole, gets a boost from us and we get a boost from them. It goes hand in hand," McCraw said. "I respect them a lot and anything we can do to help them get through the day is something I want to be a part of."
DePaul head coach Jerry Wainwright put the game into perspective.
"This is a special time at any service academy," Wainwright said. "Deep down our guys know we're at war. These (Air Force) kids have made a commitment to represent us as servicemen and they may have to fight. My hat's off to Jeff and his kids. "