AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP) — Larry Eustachy wants 24th-ranked Colorado State to be better than good.
The Rams’ first-year coach had bigger goals in mind after his squad held off a gritty Air Force team 89-86 on Saturday.
“I’m talking to our team about being great — not good, but great,” said Eustachy, selected the Associated Press coach of the year in 2000 while at Iowa State. “I’ve had two great teams, and I’d like for them to be my third great team. We’ve got a long way to go to do it, but I think they’re willing to do it.
“We want to be special, and they all buy into it.”
A road win over an improved Falcons team was a step in the right direction, as Air Force entered the game 11-1 at home. Colorado State (21-4, 8-2 Mountain West) trailed 23-19 in the first half, but used its size en route to a 39-23 rebounding advantage and 18 second-chance points.
Eustachy joked about what would be the difference in his team being great rather than just good.
“If they (help me) hit my marks and get my salary bonuses, then they’ll be a great team,” he said. “They’ll be special. They’ll be just super.”
Dorian Green scored 22 points to lead all five starters in double figures and propel Colorado State to its sixth consecutive win.
The Rams led 82-72 with 1:05 remaining, but the Falcons (15-9, 6-5) pulled within four twice in the final minute. Michael Lyons hit a 3-pointer for Air Force with 2 seconds left, but Colorado State inbounded the ball without incident to close the game.
It was a quality test for the surging Rams, who face UNLV and conference-leading New Mexico next week.
“It went down to the wire and was one of the better games we’ve been in in a long time,” Eustachy said. “It took a special effort and a special game for us to beat them. It’s a special win, and they’re hard to get.”
The Rams, who have won eight of nine, got production from a number of players. Pierce Hornung posted a double-double with 13 points and 16 boards.
“We did a good job of not letting the environment affect our game, but we certainly can improve quite a bit on what we did today,” Hornung said. “It was a great environment with a sellout crowd, and their fans were nuts, as always. But give credit to our fans for coming out, too.”
Air Force trailed 75-72 with 3:29 left, but CSU used a 7-0 run during the next two minutes to push its lead to double digits. The Falcons fell to 3-79 all-time against ranked teams after defeating 22nd-ranked San Diego State 70-67 on Dec. 2.
Lyons, the conference’s leading scorer, had a career-high 45 points for the Falcons on 17-of-25 shooting. He finished with the most scored by a Mountain West player this season, the most ever by a Falcons player in a conference game and in Clune Arena, and the most for an Air Force player since Bob Beckel had a school-record 50 against Arizona on Feb. 28, 1959.
“Games like this don’t come very often for very many people,” said Lyons, who is averaging 19.2 points per game. “I hit a couple shots in a row and that got me going. I kind of rode that wave the whole game. I was fortunate enough for my teammates to find me. I thank them for that.”
Todd Fletcher added 11 points for Air Force.
Wes Eikmeier had 19 points for the Rams despite 3-of-10 shooting from 3-point range, but came through down the stretch with seven points in the final 2:57. Greg Smith had 16 points, with Colton Iverson adding 15.
Air Force has lost three of its last four and dropped its first conference game at home (5-1). Its 86 points were the most in a losing effort since a 114-87 loss to Texas Christian on Jan. 21, 2000.
CSU defeated Air Force 79-40 in Fort Collins on Jan. 16.
“We didn’t lose, we just ran out of time,” Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said. “It’s hard because you work so hard and come up a little short. We have some more games to go win, and you have to let this one go after a short amount of time.”
Both teams shot better than 53 percent from the field, and the Rams scored 26 points from the free-throw line while limiting Air Force to just 12 free-throw attempts.
Air Force led 23-19 midway through the first half, but the Rams used their size to build a 21-5 rebounding advantage in the first 20 minutes and took the lead for good with Smith’s free throw with 4:59 remaining.
CSU led 48-40 at the break.
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