Before Thursday night’s game, Idaho State men’s basketball coach Ryan Looney said that if his team beat Air Force, the Bengals wouldn’t consider it to be an upset.
The oddsmakers said otherwise.
But behind a historic game from Tarik Cool, clutch free-throw shooting and timely offensive rebounds, the 14 1/2-point underdog Bengals upset Air Force on Thursday in Colorado Springs, Colorado, 89-79.
“We just threw about a 60-second party in the locker room together,” said Looney, who earned his first-career Division I win, in a postgame radio interview. “We celebrated a win. Gotta start that tradition in our program. Anytime you go on the road, can win a game, regardless of opponent, that needs to be celebrated.”
Cool scored 41 points, tying for the 14th-best single-game output in ISU history. The junior transfer from Lane Community College went for 27 points in the second half, when he made all 14 of his free throws and helped ISU ice the game down the stretch.
Cool finished 15 of 15 at the stripe, 11 of 17 from the field and 4 of 8 from the 3-point line. It’s ISU’s first 40-point effort since 1979 and ties Lawrence Butler, Steve Hayes and Willie Humes for the 14th-most single-game points in program history.
“Our guys did a good job inbounding to him in our press offense that (is) designed to get it to our point guard,” Looney said. “We were doing a good job getting it out of, first, trap, and then later in the halfcourt, getting it back to the point guard, and he was finding himself getting fouled in those situations, and then did a fantastic job knocking them all down.”
Cool added five rebounds and three assists to his stat line. Chier Maker chipped in a career-high 21 points — 19 in the first half — and eight rebounds, and Jared Stutzman poured in 11.
Idaho State (1-1) led for 30 minutes, 38 seconds, widening its margin to 11 points three times — once late in the first half and twice early in the second half.
The Bengals shot 50% in the first frame, and 8 for 17 from the arc, while pulling down 10 offensive rebounds to extend possessions and build a 42-31 lead at the break.
Air Force (0-1) was hot out of the locker room, opening the second half by making nine shots in a row. The Falcons achieved a 14-0 run at one point, and were either tied or led from the 13:49 mark until Stutzman buried a 3 with 7:51 remaining to give the Bengals the lead back for good.
ISU held Air Force off down the stretch, despite primary post defenders Chidi Udengwu and Malik Porter fouling out. The Falcons finished with 48 points in the paint, went 24 of 27 at the charity stripe and shot 51.9% from the floor, but couldn’t get Cool and the Bengals to crack.
“We’re going to enjoy this one tonight, get some sleep, get ourselves back to Pocatello tomorrow morning,” Looney said.
ISU won the rebounding battle 31-26, committed 12 turnovers to Air Force’s 13, shot 50% from the field, 41.4% from deep and assisted on 13 of 28 baskets.
Idaho State’s offensive renaissance came two days after shooting 31.9% and scoring 40 points in a 54-40 loss at Wyoming.
“We were running offense harder, guys were screening better, ball was moving faster, and magically guys were standing wide open,” Looney said. “It’s crazy how that works.”
Defensively, while ISU had no answer for Air Force down low, the Bengals held the Falcons to 1-of-11 3-point shooting, swiped seven steals and rebounded 19 of Air Force’s 25 missed field goals.
ISU attempted 56 shots to Air Force’s 52.
“Both teams shot a pretty good percentage, but we got to shoot it six more times than they did because of our rebounding and our ability to take care of the ball,” Looney said. “Basketball’s no different than any other sport. You shoot it more, you’re probably going to have a good chance to win.”
The win is ISU’s second in as many seasons against a Mountain West Conference foe. The Bengals upset Boise State early last season.
Idaho State hosts Montana Western on Nov. 14 at Reed Gym.