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Colorado State steals overtime win over Air Force to keep pace in deep Mountain West

Justin Michael Avatar
January 17, 2024

A win is a win. 

Colorado State was staring down the barrel of a third consecutive conference loss and a devastating Quad 4 defeat at the hands of their in-state rivals on Tuesday night. 

However, after trailing against Air Force for over 34 minutes in a game where the Rams really struggled to knock down jump shots, CSU managed to fight its way back from a 12-point deficit to steal a 78-69 victory over the Falcons in overtime. 

Trailing by 4 points with 20 seconds remaining in regulation, Nique Clifford was able to draw a foul and knock down a pair at the line to bring the Rams within a single possession (64-62).  Then after nearly forcing their second 10-second violation of the night, the Rams were able to secure a wild pass attempt from Air Force and turn it into a transition layup for Clifford the other way to tie the game with 6 seconds remaining (64-64). 

After surviving a couple of last-second attempts from the Falcons that very easily could have proved to be fatal for the Green & Gold, the Rams came out and really dominated the overtime period. 

Unlike last season when CSU was out-scored 20-9 in OT by Air Force in a loss, this time the Rams set the tone by starting with an 11-2 run over the first 3:30. And after holding a 14-5 advantage over the extra 5 minutes of action, CSU was able to escape with a crucial home victory to keep pace in a tight Mountain West race. 

Jan 16, 2024; Fort Collins, Colorado, USA; Colorado State Rams forward Joel Scott (1) and guard Jalen Lake (15) and guard Nique Clifford (10) and guard Josiah Strong (3) in the second half against the Air Force Falcons at Moby Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

In addition to scoring the final 4 points of regulation to force overtime and ultimately allowing CSU to steal the win, Clifford led the Rams with 17 points and six rebounds in 38 minutes of action. The Colorado transfer has been one of the most important players for the Rams on both ends of the floor this season and he certainly came up big in this one. 

Along with Clifford, CSU was sparked by 11 points from Joe Palmer off the bench. He did the majority of his damage early on but without his production from deep, as well as his effort on the glass, this game very easily could have gotten out of hand before the break. It was Palmer’s fastbreak dunk that pulled the Rams within 3 in the final seconds of the first half to cap off an important 9-0 run as well. 

Though they did not immediately come out in the second half and take control of the game, by never allowing the hole to become too deep, the Rams were able to hang around and eventually steal a win in OT. It was not a signature victory by any means — this was a matchup where the Rams were favored by 15.5 points — but it was a testament to their toughness that they found a way to win, especially after losing two straight on the road. 

A less composed group might not have been able to figure it out tonight. Sometimes we forget these are college kids with human emotions and it’s not always the talent that ultimately dictates the outcome. But again, to CSU’s credit, the guys found a way instead of imploding. 

In addition to the players we have already mentioned, Isaiah Stevens had 12 points and nine assists, though he finished just 4-of-12 from the floor in a relatively quiet scoring game for his standards. 

On the flipside, it was great to see an aggressive Joel Scott finish with 13 points and seven rebounds. Going 8-of-10 at the free throw line was especially significant, as it’s been an area where he’s struggled this season. 

Finally, while it was not the type of game that jumps off the paper, Josiah Strong and Jalen Lake finishing with a combined 16 on 8 points apiece was quietly a big factor, particularly with Patrick Cartier only having 3 points in 18 minutes. 

While I expect Cartier to be a much bigger factor most nights, after not getting much from anybody outside of the three leading scorers in the recent road losses, getting 29 out of Scott, Strong and Lake in a game where CSU had to grind it out was encouraging. The Rams need to be able to depend on those guys to produce their share consistently, too. 

Here are some more takeaways from Tuesday night. 

Settled too often early on 

Credit Air Force for disrupting the Rams with some matchup zone looks but the fact of the matter is that CSU settled for a lot of jumpers early in possessions in the first half. 

In the second half, CSU did a better job of attacking the paint and was able to produce 14 of its 22 points in that area. Their assertiveness resulted in 11 more free throw attempts than what they attempted over the first 20 minutes as well. 

Had the Rams continued to try and win a 3-point shootout, it seems likely that Ethan Taylor and Beau Becker would have been able to hit enough to take the win for Air Force. But to CSU’s credit, the Rams were able to adjust to the flow of the game, remain patient and work the ball with intent, and eventually it turned the tide. 

Turnovers were key 

It might have been a fairly pedestrian night for Stevens in terms of his scoring output. He did play a major role in the Rams having a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio though. 

As a team the Rams had 18 assists and nine turnovers, while the Falcons finished with 13 assists and 16 turnovers. CSU also did a better job of turning the opponent’s miscues into points, as the Rams held a +14 advantage in points off turnovers in the win. 

Survive and advance 

This might not have been the bounceback performance Ram Nation was hoping for but the important thing is that it was also not the catastrophic loss that takes CSU out of the title race. 

Every game is going to present its own challenges in this league. It really comes down to who can win at home and steal a few on the road. The Rams are still in position to do so.

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