Air Force stripped a potential win away from Nevada on Saturday, as the Falcons walked out of the Virginia Street Gym victorious, 68-61.
Nevada (4-3) led its Mountain West Conference opener for 32 minutes, 42 seconds and built an eight-point lead. But costly turnovers and cold shooting in the fourth quarter cost the Wolf Pack down the stretch.
The Wolf Pack turned the ball over seven times and shot 23 percent (3-of-13) in the final 10 minutes. Air Force took advantage and outscored the Pack 19-8 to steal the win. Nevada had 17 turnovers for the game.
“We we’re throwing them the ball so that wasn’t part of our game plan,” head coach Amanda Levens said. “We need to do a better job of taking care of the ball. … We didn’t handle our composure well.”
Nevada shot 42 percent from the field and 33 percent from 3-point range. Sophomore forward Imani Lacy scored a team-high 13 points with six rebounds. Da’Ja Hamilton added 10 points and three steals. Nia Alexander and Essence Booker each scored eight points.
The Pack’s offensive struggles in the second half helped Air Force get back into the game. The Falcons outscored Nevada 32-20 and were held scoreless through four minutes in the fourth quarter.
“We have to be better in terms of executing,” Levens said. “We just can’t have plays that aren’t smart basketball plays. … They are young players and they will learn, but at the same time they’ve played so much basketball and we should know how to play better. … When it comes down to it, you need players who can make shots. We have to score better in these moments.”
To combat Nevada’s offensive miscues down the stretch, Levens threw out a stingy 2-3 zone defense to force turnovers and limit Air Force’s perimeter attack. The Falcons shot just 38 percent from the field and the Pack came away with 11 turnovers.
“I thought our zone played really well,” Levens said. “We did a good job of getting the ball out of their hands and finding our spots. So I was pleased with how our zone played.”
The Virginia City Street Gym offered a change of scenery. A timeout was called during the second half to fix a shot clock issue. Nevada also started the game with a technical foul, giving Air Force two free throws before tip-off.
“It was a really cool environment,” Levens said. “The clocks not working weren’t ideal and starting the game with a technical foul was a little frustrating. But the atmosphere was great, our fans came out and got loud. … I love the size and it’s fun to play in.”
Nevada ran out the starting five of Jená Williams, Booker, Lacy, Alexander and Amaya West.
The Wolf Pack attacked the Falcons inside with eight-straight points in the paint. Booker nailed a pair of 3-pointers to put Nevada ahead 22-17 after the first quarter.
Air Force chipped into its deficit with coast-to-coast layups and stingy perimeter defense. Nevada responded with Jacqulynn Nakai’s 3-pointer from the right elbow and two Lacy layups.
The Pack ended the second quarter with a quick 6-2 run and led 41-36 at the half.
Both teams couldn’t find an offensive rhythm in the third quarter. The Wolf Pack scored 12 points on just 38 percent shooting. But their smothering zone defense held Air Force to just 2-for-8 shooting in the final two minutes.
Nevada led 53-49 heading into the fourth.
Back-to-back turnovers from Nevada helped Air Force take a 59-57 lead with 3:39 remaining. Booker’s two free throws cut the Pack’s deficit to 63-61 with 55 seconds left.
Air Force closed it out with two-straight steals and five free throws.
Up next: Nevada faces Stanislaus State on Tuesday, Dec. 10, at 11 a.m. at Lawlor Events Center.
— Isaiah Burrows