Clemson 68, Air Force 67

NEW YORK (AP) - K.C. Rivers scored 19 points as Clemson held on to beat Air Force and advance to the National Invitation Tournament championship with a 68-67 victory Tuesday night.

Trevor Booker added 13 points for Clemson (25-10), which will play West Virginia (26-9) for the championship Thursday night. The Mountaineers beat Mississippi State 63-62 on Darris Nichols' buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the earlier game.

Clemson, which tied the 1986-87 Tigers for most wins in a season, reached the NIT finals for the second time - and first since losing to California in 1999.

Nick Welch scored 16 points and Matt McCraw 15 for Air Force (26-9), which had its three-game winning streak stopped after reaching the NIT semifinals for the first time in program history.

The Tigers had to hang on in this one after leading by as many as 13 early in the second half.

After Booker's dunk at 16:08 made it 39-26, the Falcons responded with a 25-12 run - capped by consecutive 3-pointers by Tim Anderson and Welch -- to tie it at 51 with 6:56 remaining.

Clemson got the lead back up to 10 at 65-55 on David Potter's 3-pointer with 2:07 remaining, but Air Force wasn't finished. After Rivers' two free throws made it 67-60 with 45 seconds left, McCraw made two foul shots of his own 12 seconds later.

The Tigers had a chance to put the game away, but Vernon Hamilton made just one of two free throws with 31.2 seconds remaining, and Rivers missed two with 14.5 seconds left. Clemson finished 7-of-17 from the foul line.

Welch made a layup with 4.2 seconds left, and Dan Nwaelele stole the ball from Cliff Hammonds and hit a 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds left to make it 68-67. The Falcons simply ran out of time, as Potter took the inbounds pass from Hamilton and dribbled out the clock.

The loss ended a spirited run by Air Force, which notched its first postseason victories in 17 years, following a four-game skid that helped keep the Falcons out of the NCAA tournament.

Clemson took charge early in the first half, going on an 18-5 run that put the Tigers up 28-13 with 4:01 left. Hammonds scored eight points during the run, including two 3-pointers.

The Falcons then went on 9-0 run to cut it to 28-22 with 2:05 left, capped by consecutive 3-pointers by Jacob Burtschi and McCraw. Trevor Booker's layup with 5 seconds left gave Clemson a 30-22 halftime lead.

Clemson shot 52 percent (13-of-25) from the field in the first half, compared to Air Force's 40 percent (8-of-20). The Tigers also rebounded the Falcons 17-9.

Welch was forced to leave the game with 5:57 left in the half when he was elbowed in the nose, causing it to bleed profusely. Welch put his hands over his face and bent over before trainers came out to give him a towel to help stop the bleeding, and led him to the locker room.

The game was delayed for about 7 minutes as the area on the court in front of the Falcons' bench was cleaned up. Burtschi grabbed a broom and McCraw picked up a towel to help with the cleanup efforts, eliciting big cheers from the Air Force fans.

Welch rejoined his teammates on the bench shortly before halftime with gauze in left nostril, and started the second half for the Falcons.


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