AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – While Air Force was wildly celebrating its first win over a top-20 team in 65 tries, San Diego State was left to wonder how things have gone so bad so fast.
The 13th-ranked Aztecs lost another game and another front-line player Saturday, when they were beaten 58-56 by a Falcons team that's been through a lot of turmoil and a coaching change this month.
Two weeks ago, the Aztecs were sitting pretty at 20-3 and were atop the Mountain West Conference. Now, they've dropped three straight for the first time in four years and they've fallen two games behind conference leader New Mexico.
In many ways, this loss was worse than their close call at UNLV, a 65-63 defeat, and a 77-67 loss to the surging Lobos at home on Wednesday night.
The Aztecs (20-6, 6-4) hadn't lost to the Falcons in eight tries.
"I think we have to make sure that we remain determined and believing in ourselves," coach Steve Fisher said. "I think when you lose a game and then lose another game, you start to wonder. And then you lose a third game that everybody says you're supposed to win, it can wear on you.
"And the only way to get that hook out of your mouth, to spit it out, is to work up a sweat in practice, shoot and shoot and shoot, come out and find a way to get a win in the next one, and that's what we have to find a way to do."
That, they will, pledged Xavier Thames, whose off-balance 3-pointer missed the rim at the buzzer, sending the Falcons, interim coach Dave Pilipovich and the sparse crowd at Clune Arena into delirium.
"Just get back to having fun like we had in the beginning of the season and get at it and practice hard," he said. "Those are the two main things: having fun and working hard."
Like the Falcons did Saturday.
"It would be a great day to retire," cracked Pilipovich, who might actually have secured his future with the Falcons (13-11, 3-7).
Air Force improved to 2-1 under Pilipovich, 1-64 against top-20 teams and 2-74 against ranked opponents. The only other time the Falcons beat a ranked team was Feb. 15, 1992, against No. 22 UTEP.
"Before the game, we talked about that there's been only one other Air Force team that's beaten a ranked team. That was in '92, almost to the day. We put that up on the board before the game and said, 'Why not us?'" Pilipovich said.
The Aztecs fell two games behind conference leader New Mexico, which beat No. 11 UNLV 65-45 earlier Saturday. This is their first three-game skid since Feb. 9-16, 2008, a span of 143 games.
The Aztecs got 17 points from Chase Tapley and 13 points and 11 rebounds from Tim Shelton, but they sorely missed Jamaal Franklin, their leading scorer (16.0) and rebounder (7.4), who sprained his left ankle in the closing minutes of a loss to New Mexico on Wednesday night and sat out Saturday.
Another San Diego State starter went down Saturday when 6-foot-11 forward Garrett Green turned his right ankle 8 minutes into the second half. He took a seat after scoring five points and pulling down 10 rebounds.
"It would help to have those guys," Thames said, "but we can't make excuses."
"We had all sorts of looks," Fisher concurred. "You've got to be able to find a way to make them. You've got to make a few more than we made — or a lot more than we made."
During one stretch in the second half, the Aztecs missed 13 straight shots and went 11½ minutes without a field goal, allowing the Falcons to hang around for a shot at the upset.
Behind Lyons, who hit two 3-pointers and make a crucial steal during a 10-0 run, the Falcons built a 56-48 lead with 2 1/2 minutes left only to watch the Aztecs whittle away.
With Air Force clinging to a one-point lead, Todd Fletcher was fouled with 8.2 seconds left. He made the first free throws but missed the second and Shelton grabbed the rebound.
Thames wanted to drive to the basket to send the game into overtime, but "I got it kind of late," he said. "I was going to drive, but there was 2 seconds on the clock, so I just had to force up a shot."
It wasn't even close, just like so many other attempts by the Aztecs, who shot 29 percent in the second half.
"It's hard to win anywhere, especially hard to win on the road," Fisher said. "And it's especially hard when you shoot it as poorly as we did."
Franklin tested his ankle during warm-ups but didn't even try to talk his way into the lineup. Fisher said he had no update on Green but hoped to have him back against Wyoming on Wednesday night.