Ramsey: Coach Dave Pilipovich wills Air Force to huge upset over UNLV

by David Ramsey

The Falcons gathered around Dave Pilipovich. They were on the verge of the most unlikely of upsets.

On Jan. 16, UNLV obliterated Air Force, 100-64. On Feb. 16, the Falcons were threatening to conquer the team that had humiliated them.

During a timeout with 4:46 left, Pilipovich playfully but forcefully punched his players in the chest as he roared, his voice rising with each word.

"Put your foot on their throats now!" Pilipovich said.

Pilipovich's punch landed a little low on guard C.J. Siples.

"He almost knocked the breath out of me," Siples said, laughing.

Pilipovich's emotional outburst worked. Air Force dropped UNLV, 79-74. Jacob Van and Zach Kocur and Siples were magnificent, but this was Pilipovich's masterpiece. He willed his limited team to victory.

Siples played defensive forward for most of the night. Siples stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 166 pounds. On the most critical sequence of the night, Siples blocked Dwayne Morgan's point-blank shot. Morgan, who stands 6-7, was hoping to rise for a dunk. Siples denied him.

The sequence summed up the night.

"Which team fought harder?" Pilipovich asked, already knowing the answer.

The Rebels' players failed to get back on defense. The Rebels declined to attack on rebounds. The Rebels should have found a way to win this game.

Air Force was filled with special fuel. The Rebels gleefully placed their collective feet on Air Force throats in January. They kept pressing when the game was clearly decided.

"I didn't forget and our team didn't forget," Pilipovich said.

Not forgetting served as the theme for the night.

Pilipovich was sitting in a chair in Clune Arena, but his mind was back to that vicious January night when Vegas embarrassed him.

"I don't forget," he said. "I don't forget."

He's spent most of his career as an assistant. When he took over the Air Force job in the middle of the 2011-2012 season, he still wasn't sure how to argue with officials. It took a while for Pilipovich to become comfortable as head man.

He's found his rhythm. These Falcons require emotion to contend with, much less defeat, the taller, more talented teams in the Mountain West.

Pilipovich provides that emotion.

Siples admits his coach sometimes jolts him with his unapologetic passion.

"That dude is crazy," Siples sometimes thinks to himself.

Siples laughed as he thought about the bear hugs and the playful punches he receives from Pilipovich.

He would rather have a loud, fully involved coach than a passive, sit-back-and-watch leader.

These Falcons have overachieved to a 4-10 Mountain West record. The challenge for Pilipovich as he moves forward is to find taller, beefier, more talented players who want to spend four seasons at the academy.

This team has struggled at times this season. The Falcons got hammered at New Mexico and Nevada.

And, especially, at UNLV.

Pilipovich didn't forget the way he felt after the Rebels set fire to his basketball program.

He made sure his players didn't forget, either.


Jack Benoit