Falcons lose heartbreaker to Clemson in NIT semifinals

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo -- With 1.2 seconds remaining and Air Force down by one point, a hush went over the crowd at Madison Square Garden as Clemson tried frantically to inbound the ball to end the game. After Clemson forward K.C. Rivers moved rapidly along the baseline, he finally found forward David Potter who broke through Air Force's full-court press as the clock ran out to give the Tigers a 68-67 victory and a spot in the National Invitation Tournament championship game on Thursday.

Air Force guard Dan Nwaelele hit a quick jumper with 2 seconds left on the clock to move the Falcons within one point of tying Clemson and taking the game into overtime. The senior guard said the team was trying to focus on playing good defense to give them a few more opportunities to win the game.

"We were just trying to deny the opposing team from going long, and then, I just denied my guy and Drew's (Andrew Henke) guy went long. Both guys just tripped over each other," Cadet Nwaelele said. " The guy passed the ball and I tried to get it. I tried to jump into him to initiate contact, but it wasn't there and the shot went in."

Clemson led by as many as 15 points at one point, but the Falcons scrapped and clawed their way back into the game several times with key runs in the second half. But, Clemson weathered each Air Force rally and eventually won the right to play West Virginia University for the NIT Championship.

Air Force Falcons Head Coach Jeff Bzdelik said he was very proud of his team's performance, and the perseverance they showed throughout the game.

"There's no quit in these young men," Coach Bzdelik said. "I'm struggling with words as to how to describe these young men, how much they have enriched my life and enriched the fans all around Colorado Springs and this nation in what they are able to accomplish."

The Falcons coach said Clemson is a highly-capable defensive team, and Air Force just couldn't overcome their size and athleticism.

"They are one of the premiere offensive rebounding teams in the ACC," Coach Bzdelik said. "They were able to take advantage of their strength just enough in this ball game to get some separation."

For Air Force guard Matt McCraw, this was his final game in an Air Force Academy uniform. Cadet McCraw said winning over 90 games during his four years has been great, but being able to share it with his teammates was even better.

"Ever since we've gotten here our motto has just been to get better every day," Cadet McCraw said. "Right now, I'm just cherishing the moment with my friends and teammates and brothers. Our career has been great together, but unfortunately it came to an end. Fortunately, we still have other guys to step out and keep this legacy going."

One of the key reasons Air Force was unable to catch Clemson was their poor free throw shooting. The Falcons shot 43 percent from the charity stripe, which is far below the team's 76 percent average.

"You're not going to wing big games if you don't make foul shots, and we were 6 for 14 from the free throw line," Coach Bzdelik said. "Between free throws and not enough defensive rebounds, we dug ourselves a hole."

Air Force shot the lights out at Madison Square Garden at 60 percent from the field while Clemson topped out at 68 percent. But, Clemson had the edge on the board over Air Force

Four Air Force players had double figures in the game, with center Nick Welch leading the team with 16 points. Matt McCraw scored 15 points and Nwaelele chipped in 12. The leading scorer for the game was Clemson's Rivers with 19 points. Air Force finishes their season at 26-9, which is the most wins in school history.