LAS VEGAS -- Twice in six days, Air Force came within a few big shots of knocking off the Mountain West Conference co-champions.
Although BYU survived both times, the Cougars are grateful their road to the NCAA tournament includes no more dates with the Falcons.
Jimmer Fredette scored 21 points, Jonathan Tavernari had 19 points and 11 rebounds, and No. 25 BYU overcame a second-half deficit in an 80-69 victory over Air Force on Thursday in the Mountain West tournament quarterfinals.
Lee Cummard scored 10 of his 16 points in the second half, adding eight rebounds and seven assists as the top-seeded Cougars (25-6) weathered an entire afternoon of trouble with the ninth-seeded Falcons, who went winless in 16 regular-season Mountain West games before beating Colorado State in Wednesday's play-in.
Air Force gathered momentum for the tournament last Saturday, when they lost to BYU by just five points. From their backdoor cuts on offense to their surprisingly effective rebounding, much of what worked for the Falcons in Provo also worked at the Thomas and Mack Center, keeping the Cougars uncomfortable throughout.
"Extremely competitive games, those last 80 minutes of basketball," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "The last two games were similar. Air Force made big shots on big plays."
Anwar Johnson scored 16 of his 24 points in the first half for Air Force (10-21), which led 41-38 at halftime by outrebounding and outshooting the taller Cougars. The Falcons even kept it close until the final minutes, when Lamont Morgan Jr. and Tavernari hit key 3-pointers to finish off BYU's fifth straight victory.
"We put forth a good effort against Colorado State, [but] today, we had an unbelievable effort," Air Force coach Jeff Reynolds said. "It took us half a conference season to get our legs, and we got more competitive. Our confidence got better and better."
BYU advanced to face the winner of UNLV's meeting with San Diego State, a quarterfinal between two teams probably needing a victory to get into the NCAA tournament.
The Mountain West's early quarterfinal was no easy matinee for BYU, which grabbed a share of its third straight Mountain West regular-season title and its first national ranking of the year with a strong surge to close the regular season. BYU had won nine of 10 overall before heading to Las Vegas, where the Cougars lost to UNLV on Feb. 21.
Before knocking off Colorado State, Air Force had lost its previous 16 straight opening-round conference tournament games, including the 2004 opener as the top seed.
Andrew Henke scored 18 points with three 3-pointers and five assists, while Matt Holland and Grant Parker had 10 points apiece for the Falcons, who began the season 8-2.
"Air Force plays really hard, [and] they play different than anyone else," Tavernari said. "In the first half, they outplayed us, but if we play hard, we're going to get rebounds and loose balls. Our mindset was different in all three games against them. Our sense of urgency was the best in this game."
Perhaps remembering the Cougars' struggles last week, the BYU fans in attendance grumbled with nervousness when Air Force took a 13-8 lead on Trevor Noonan's 3-pointer with 13:40 left in the first half. Johnson was particularly relentless, scoring inside and out to push the Falcons ahead at halftime.
BYU regained the lead with a 15-6 run after halftime, although Air Force rallied back with help from the Cougars' spotty shot selection. The Falcons fell behind for good midway through the second half, but after Sammy Schafer's three-point play pulled them to 68-65 with 3:52 left, BYU scored the next seven points and hit enough free throws late to keep a comfortable lead.