March 18, 2022
How Air Force used stifling defense for its first-ever postseason victory
What first-ever postseason win means for the Falcons
SAN FRANCISCO — When Air Force walked into War Memorial Gymnasium on Thursday night, you wouldn’t have known it was its first postseason appearance in program history. For a team that had only had double-digit wins in a season three times since it joined Division I in 1996, the Falcons didn’t seem overawed facing a team in its second straight WNIT. Despite being picked second-to-last in the preseason Mountain West conference poll, the Falcons had outperformed expectations all season long and did so once again on Thursday night.
Using a stout defensive effort in the fourth quarter, Air Force (19-13) defeated the University of San Francisco Dons (17-16), 64-60, in the first round of the 2022 Women’s National Invitational Tournament. The Falcons forced 20 Don turnovers in the game, including eight in the fourth quarter, scoring 24 points off the USF turnovers. The Falcons had four players in double figures, led by 15 from seniors Cierra Winters and Riley Snyder. Jazmine Gayles led all scorers with 21 for USF. Head coach Chris Gobrecht has seen a lot of firsts this season for her program, and the win on Thursday night was no different.
“So many things that happen this year for this team [are] a first and they deserve to be the ones sort of setting the marks,” Gobrecht told The Next. “They can continue to be the standard bearer. The ones saying, this is what Air Force can do, because they’re just a great bunch of kids.”
Air Force has leaned on its defense to win games all season. It had the top defense in the Mountain West and was in the top 65 in the country, holding teams to just 57.6 points per game. It also led the Mountain West and was top-20 in the country in taking the ball from opponents almost 20 times per game.
San Francisco, meanwhile, was one of the best offenses in the West Coast Conference. The Dons averaged 71 points per game, good for fourth-best in the WCC. They were led by the leading scorer in the conference in Ioanna Krimili, who averaged almost 20 points per game. It was a battle of two teams with completely different styles on Thursday night, and through three quarters, the offensive team had the edge.
However, Air Force turned on the defense in the fourth quarter. The Falcons held USF scoreless for the first seven and a half minutes of the quarter and used a 10-0 run to take a five-point lead. Air Force has outscored its opponents by 34 points in the fourth quarter this season. Gobrecht knew her team’s recipe for fourth-quarter success.
“There is a pattern of how it happened, it’s pretty typical for us,” Gobrecht said. “We just chase you down and chase you down and chase you down until you get tired. These guys can sense when that happens, and they tend to really amp it and go get people.”
USF responded with six straight points to trail by just one with 1:33 remaining in the game. The Dons had the ball with under a minute remaining, trailing by one, but Air Force forced its seventh turnover of the quarter and got a layup on the following possession. USF cut it to a single-possession game a few more times but couldn’t retake the lead. The final horn sounded, and the Falcons players jumped for joy as their small group of fans let out a roar. Despite the loss, San Francisco head coach Molly Goodenbour said she was proud of the season her team put together.
“I’m really proud of this group for what they did over the course of the season,” Goodenbour told The Next. “They played with a lot of consistency at a very high level, managed to finish third in our conference. Hopefully we’ll come out next year and be able to continue to compete for a championship in the West Coast Conference.”
San Francisco, despite being a good offensive team, had struggled all season with finding a second scoring presence. The Dons’ second- and third-leading scorers had come off the bench most of the season. Jazmine Gayles had a very nice game but had to start instead of coming off the bench due to starting guard Amalie Langer being unavailable. Having these points off the bench had helped USF, which had struggled in years past to find scorers besides Krimili. Meanwhile, Air Force’s defense did a tremendous job on Krimili, holding her to just 15 points on 6-for-16 shooting.
The Dons had also struggled all season with rebounding. They had the worst rebounding margin of any team in the WCC and those woes showed up again, giving up 10 offensive rebounds to the Falcons. The Dons need to add some frontcourt depth to compete with Gonzaga and BYU going forward.
Air Force advances to the second round of the WNIT and will face the winner of UCLA and UC-Irvine. The Dons’ season is over at 17-16 and a second straight appearance in the WNIT, the program’s second-ever appearance in the tournament.
Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.