AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Facing an Air Force team coming off a near-upset victory at New Mexico following a 43-point drubbing at BYU, the Utah basketball team didn't really know what to expect Wednesday night at Clune Arena.
The Utes knew it would be "meat-grinder" as Ute coach Jim Boylen put it, which it was — just ask Ute forward Jay Watkins, who needed stitches for a gash above his eye in the first half.
But the Utes hung tough and broke away in the final 10 minutes for 54-43 victory, thanks to the play of veteran players Luka Drca, Carlon Brown and Kim Tillie.
While freshman Marshall Henderson led the Ute scoring again with 16 points, Drca provided leadership and scored 13 points with no turnovers, while Tillie grabbed nine rebounds in his most action in nearly two months.
Brown? He didn't score for the first time since his freshman season, but he earned praise from his coach for his strong overall play, which included five rebounds and five assists.
"Carlon Brown played winning basketball," Boylen said. "I thought his poise, along with Drca, two veteran guys, who have played here before and know how hard it is to play here dictated the tempo in the second half. I thought they were terrific."
The victory, the Utes' sixth straight over Air Force, moved their record to 13-14 overall and 6-7 in Mountain West Conference play. They'll have a chance to even both marks with Wyoming coming to town Saturday afternoon.
The Falcons were coming off the tough loss at New Mexico, where they held the lead with under 20 seconds left. The small crowd was anxious to see improved play from the Falcons and they got it in the early going when the Falcons jumped out to an early 6-0 lead.
The Utes got off to one of their patented slow starts and didn't even score for the first five minutes, finally getting on the board on a Drca 3-pointer with 14:58 left.
Utah took a couple of one-point leads, but needed a reverse layup by Henderson just before the buzzer to tie the score at 19-19.
Boylen said he told his team at halftime, "it's zero-zero, a 20-minute game."
He started Brown in place of Shawn Glover, who had a poor first half with three turnovers and no rebounds or points and quickly pulled David Foster, who was having a hard time guarding the smaller Falcon centers out on the perimeter and inserted Tillie.
The Utes jumped ahead, but it was still 34-30 midway through the half when the Utes scored 10 straight points in a four-minute stretch to give them a comfortable lead.
First reserve Chris Hines made a big play, powering up a shot underneath and getting fouled for a three-point play. Then Henderson drove inside and turned it into a three-point play. He followed with two free throws, then Drca scored inside and it was 44-30 with 6:17 left.
"I was really proud of my team," said Boylen. "Going small to start the second half was a good adjustment. I thought we did a better job of figuring out their zone in the second half."
Boylen also praised his team's defense, which held the Falcons to just 2 of 17 from 3-point range.
"The thing you worry about with them is their threes and they only made two tonight," he said. "We're the best 3-point defensive team in the league and we were good tonight."
The Falcons were led by Grant Parker with 11 points and Todd Fletcher with 10. Evan Washington, the team's second-leading scorer, had his lowest scoring output on the season with one point on a late free throw.
"I thought the thing that hurt us was defensively," said AFA coach Jeff Reynolds. "We came out in the second half, knowing what they were going to do, but we were not able to defend it."
The Utes ended up shooting 57.9 percent in the second half and 50 percent for the game.
After playing Wyoming Saturday at 4 p.m., the Utes will play BYU at the Huntsman Center Wednesday night.