PROVO — It was bound to happen.
It wasn't pretty, but the No. 15 Cougars (16-1, 2-0) held off the Falcons, 76-66, before a sellout crowd of 22,700 at the Marriott Center.
"We did enough to win, that's kind of how we played," said senior guard Jackson Emery, who tied the all-time BYU steals record in the first half. "We played in too many spurts where we'd play well and then we didn't play so well. It's one of those games where you win, you move on and you learn from it. We know we can't do that every time, or we'll be in trouble."
At times, the Cougars looked sluggish and sloppy against a determined Air Force (10-5, 1-1) squad.
"It was another one of those games where the guys found a way to win," said coach Dave Rose.
Emery said it was tough for his team to get up for Air Force.
"At UNLV, there was a lot of hype and energy," he said. "Against Air Force, I feel like sometimes you can fall into a sleep, where you're not too excited or too pumped up for them. And they do that as well when you play. It's hard to get an energy going. Sometimes we had energy and sometimes we didn't."
The Cougars led by as many as 18 in the second half, 58-40, but the Falcons refused to go down quietly. Air Force battled back to whittle the deficit to eight, 69-61, with two minutes remaining.
Noah Hartsock, who finished with a double-double — 12 points and 11 rebounds — drilled a 3-pointer that pushed BYU's lead back to 11 with 1:47 left before the Cougars closed out the win.
Senior guard Jimmer Fredette scored a game-high 22 points on 6-of-14 shooting from the field, including three 3-pointers.
BYU hit 14-for-28 from 3-point range against the Runnin' Rebels, but shot just 9-for-30 from long distance against the Falcons. After knocking down 6-for-9 from behind the arc against UNLV, Emery struggled from the field, going just 2-for-11 from 3-point territory.
"It's one those nights. You'd like to go 6-for-9 every night from the 3-point line," he said. "But you know percentages and it was one of those nights. I had good looks. Jimmer and the rest of the guys found me, but I have confidence that I'll hit them in the upcoming games."
The officials called a total of 41 fouls on the two teams in a Mountain West Conference battle that sometimes resembled a football contest.43 comments on this story
"It was a hard-fought game," Rose said. "Air Force is a real physical team ... It was a real physical game. Both teams played physical. I was really impressed with Air Force, their physical toughness and their ability to spread us out and make shots."
At one point, Fredette cut his hand, but he had it treated and he returned to the floor. Afterwards, he shrugged off the minor injury.
"Most teams try to (be physical in the way they guard him)," Fredette said. "They did a good job of it. You get used to it."
The Falcons were led by Michael Lyons, who scored 14 points, and Mike Fitzgerald, who chipped in 13 and knocked down all three of his 3-point attempts.
BYU next visits rival Utah on Tuesday (6:30 p.m., The mtn.).