Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes
By PAT GRAHAM AP Sports Writer
AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP) -- Jacob Burtschi chewed on a piece of strawberry Laffy Taffy as he concentrated on the question.
The Air Force senior was asked if the Falcons were playing these days to catch the attention of the NCAA selection committee.
"We just go out there and play," Burtschi said after No. 17 Air Force beat Utah 69-43 on Wednesday night to extend its home winning streak to 29 straight. "If we impress the committee, that's great. We have to just keep playing our game."
It's certainly working -- especially at home. The Falcons (22-4, 9-3 Mountain West Conference) are tied with Brigham Young for the longest home winning streak in the nation after Gonzaga's 50-game home win streak was snapped Monday night by Santa Clara.
The Falcons haven't lost at Clune Arena since a 65-56 loss to Utah on Feb. 19, 2005. They've now won 53 of their last 54 games at home.
While keeping the streak alive was motivation enough Wednesday night, the Falcons also had this -- a 85-79 loss to Utah on Jan. 16 that halted their school-record tying 13-game win streak.
"We were embarrassed," said Dan Nwaelele, who added 19 points.
And so the Falcons used a swarming defense to force Utah into 19 turnovers and limit the Utes to almost half the number of points as in the first meeting.
Air Force led by as many as 30 points with 7:37 remaining in the game.
"Everyone came out with fire and passion," said senior Nick Welch, who tied a career high with 20 points. "That's the way we have to play the rest of the season, with that chip on our shoulder. That's when we're at our best."
Utah coach Ray Giacoletti said the Utes (9-15, 4-7) simply lost their focus, which spelled disaster in front of Air Force's hostile crowd.
"We have a pretty good understanding of what we need to be able to do to have a shot, and we didn't do the things we needed to do," he said. "We had a lot of breakdowns."
The Utes were led in scoring by Luke Nevill with 16 points. Ricky Johns had seven points as Utah's two-game winning streak was ended.
The Falcons had no one to match up with the 7-foot-1 Nevill, so they relied on the quickness of Burtschi, who was giving up 7 inches, and Welch, 5 inches shorter.
"It was hard to get the ball inside to me," said Nevill, who came in averaging 17.1 points. "I got too passive on the court."
On one occasion in the second half, Nevill was going in for a layup and Burtschi smacked him hard in the face, drawing the ire of Nevill.
But Burtschi quickly explained to him that it wasn't intentional.
"I was like, 'I can't jump as high as you,"' said Burtschi, who finished with nine points and seven boards.
Welch became the 20th player in Air Force history to score more than 1,000 points in his career with a free throw in the first half.
"Nick played a heck of a ball game," said Air Force coach Jeff Bzdelik, whose team is off to a 22-4 start for the first time in school history.
Welch was 3 of 4 on 3-pointers against Utah and feels like his shot is finally coming around.
"I've been struggling for a long time," he said. "I've been trying hard, but sometimes trying hard isn't enough. I've been in the gym, shooting. Now they're finally starting to fall. Hopefully it will be a continuous trend."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-02-14-07 2330MST