JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
Snakebitten a season ago, Fort Lewis College has learned to embrace the pressure.
The Fort Lewis men’s basketball team went just 2-7 in games decided by five points or fewer last season. On Monday, the Skyhawks proved once again that in the 2012-13 season, they’ve got the goods to get it done.
A big rebound and two free throws from Alex Herrera and a wayward buzzer-beating attempt from Steven Aldridge pushed Fort Lewis to 4-0 in games decided by five or fewer points this season, this one a 73-70 win over Western State Colorado University at Whalen Gymnasium.
“I thought we did a nice job defensively the last five minutes. ... I’m glad we have a break, and I guess we’re 7-1. Can’t ask for too much better,” Fort Lewis head coach Bob Hofman said with a smile. “I guess I could ask for 8-0, but we’ll take it.”
After an 8-0 run put Fort Lewis back in the game late, the lead seesawed back and forth, setting up a frenzied finish. Herrera, who had another double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds, made perhaps the biggest play of the night with FLC leading 71-70.
Nick Tomsick’s runner from the baseline as the shot clock dwindled down went awry, but Herrera fought his way for the rebound in the crowd with 6 seconds to go and was fouled. He calmly burried both free throws to give the Skyhawks a 73-70 edge.
The Skyhawks (7-1, 4-1 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) had a foul to give and used it with 3.4 seconds left. The Mountaineers got the ball in on the sideline, then fed the inbounder, the 5-9 Aldridge, whose desperation heave with 6-9 Torrey Udall in his face glanced harmlessly off the side of the backboard as the horn sounded.
“I feel at the very end, when teams are tired, we’re still ready to go,” guard Marcus Ayala said.
Ayala and Tomsick were key in the final minutes. The duo and Herrera accounted for all of FLC’s final 13 points. Tomsick got the Skyhawks even at 67 with a nifty scoop layup and a free throw for a three-point play, then Ayala gave Fort Lewis a 70-67 lead on the next possession with a 3, his fifth and final triple of the night. A couple of missed opportunities by Western State and Herrera’s free throws shut the door from there.
“Marcus, the whole season and even in the preseason, has just been outstanding,” Hofman said. “He’s made big plays where we’ve needed them.”
There might not be another player in the RMAC playing with as much confidence right now as Ayala, who helped FLC to a 39-18 edge in bench points. He had a career-high 22 points on 8 of 11 shooting to lead all scorers Monday, a day after setting a career-high with 17.
“It’s all about coming together. Our chemistry’s so good. ... We’ve been in that situation so many times before. It’s nothing new to us,” Ayala said.
On the flip side, Western’s Terrence Boyd put on a clinic in the first half, scoring 13 of his 19 points and pulling in 10 of his 12 rebounds for a double-double in just 11 minutes of play as the teams entered the half even at 35. Charles Joseph was a load off the bench for WSCU (5-5, 4-2 RMAC), scoring 15 and grabbing 12 rebounds, and Travis Shepherd had 20 points.
“We had a real hard time with the matchup on Terrence Boyd. We had a really hard time guarding him and keeping him off the boards, and that’s to his credit,” Hofman said.
That trio was instrumental in building a 58-51 lead for the Mountaineers, who in that stretch outworked FLC on the glass and defensively. The Skyhawks, however, rallied with an 8-0 run minutes later to grab a 62-61 lead, setting the stage for the furious finish.
“They did a really nice job throwing us out of rhythm,” Hofman said of Western’s second-half burst.
Late-game defense helped swing the tide in FLC’s favor. Unofficially, the Mountaineers didn’t score in the paint in the final 12:36 after scoring 34 in the lane up to that point.
The Skyhawks will return after breaking for the holidays with a road trip to face Chadron State and Black Hills State on Jan. 4 and 5, respectively.