AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Everywhere they go, the Air Force Falcons see constant reminders of outsiders' low expectations for the long-struggling program.
The media picked them to finish last in a deep Mountain West Conference, a preseason prediction that's plastered to the locker room doors and across grease boards.
"We have some great teams in this league, but ninth? Come on!" coach Dave Pilipovich said Saturday as he basked in the Falcons' 70-67 victory over No. 22 San Diego State. "I joke that there were a couple of guys that picked us 10th -- and we're in a nine-team league. We constantly remind ourselves: This is what people think of us."
Maybe not anymore.
Michael Lyons scored 20 points and the Falcons fended off San Diego State by overcoming 25 points and 10 rebounds from Aztecs star Jamaal Franklin, who scored 14 over the final 9 minutes to help San Diego State nearly overcome a 12-point deficit.
The Falcons' latest stunner sets up a showdown in Albuquerque, N.M., next week for -- get this -- first place in one of the toughest conferences in college basketball this season.
There's talk that the league could get five or even six NCAA tournament bids this year, and now the Falcons are crashing the party. They'll take some serious swagger into The Pit, the next stop on their told-you-so tour.
"We know how great New Mexico is but we're going to prepare like we always do," senior guard Todd Fletcher said after scoring 13 points. "I mean, we were picked ninth in the league, so we have nothing to lose."
The Falcons won for just the third time in 81 games against ranked opponents -- but two of those wins have come against the Aztecs, whom they defeated 58-56, also at Clune Arena, on Feb. 18, 2012.
Asked why they match up so well against San Diego State, three Falcons stared blankly at each other in the postgame interview room. Finally, Fletcher retorted: "Do we match up well?"
On this afternoon, they were every bit as good as the Aztecs, who had two chances in the waning seconds to send it into overtime with a 3-pointer only to see shots by Franklin and then James Rahom (14 points) rim out.
"To win a game like this you have to make plays. You have to get a lucky bounce on a play and they had one more than we did," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "We still had an opportunity but we didn't get it."
After Rahon's miss, Lyons secured the rebound, hugging the ball for the final second and then heaving it into the air, accidentally knocking a pair of panels off the overhanging scoreboard as the cadets stormed the court.
The Falcons (14-6, 5-2 MWC) won their fifth straight at Clune Arena, while the Aztecs (16-5, 4-3) lost for only the second time in their last 10 games against Air Force.
The Falcons used a 19-2 run to take control at 59-47, then held on as Franklin scored 18 points in the second half. He finished 11 for 12 from the foul line, his only miss a big one with less than a minute left and the Aztecs trailing by two.
Franklin sank the second free throw to make it 68-67 before Kamryn Williams hit two of his own at the other end after nearly losing the ball off his foot for a 70-67 lead with 19.1 seconds left.
The Aztecs had beaten their previous two opponents by 21 points each, including a 55-34 blowout of then-No. 15 New Mexico, their biggest margin of victory over a ranked team in school history.
But they were just 2 for 19 from beyond the arc at Air Force, where they were outscored from long range by 30 points.
The Aztecs outrebounded the Falcons 37-23, including 15-5 on the offensive glass.
"Our strength for us against Air Force should be offensive rebounding," Fisher said. "That was something that we talked about should be a huge plus for us. It was, but it wasn't quite enough."
Led by a career-best eight points from sophomore Marek Olesinski, the Falcons' reserves also outscored the Aztecs' bench by 23-6.
"We got beat today," Franklin said. "I always say, when I'm on the court, I'm enemies with everyone I play against, but after the game you have to show good sportsmanship and give credit when it is due."
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