Steve Lewis/Durango Herald
There’s no one formula for toppling a giant.
Taking an early nine-point lead is one way. Losing it before halftime, then falling behind by nine – not so much.
As it turns out, Fort Lewis’ path included the poise to stare the nine-point hole in the face without flinching, two tenacious guards scoring by sheer force of will to grab the lead and having the defense to make their work stand up.
Marcus Ayala scored 14 of his 25 points in the last 6 minutes, 33 seconds, Mike Matthews made two critical layups down the stretch, and the 17th-ranked Fort Lewis College men’s basketball team ended Metro State’s 22-game winning streak and topped the top-ranked Roadrunners 61-54 on Friday for the program’s first-ever victory over a No. 1 in its first-ever home game against a No. 1.
It was a classic from start to finish at Whalen Gymnasium, from player introductions and a scantily-clad, largely built gentleman leading the FLC students in a rendition of the Harlem Shake to the final horn when those same students spilled onto the floor in jubilation.
“It’s a great experience. It’s something special,” FLC center Alex Herrera said of the postgame atmosphere.
The ebb and flow of the game saw Metro State (22-1, 18-1 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) go up 43-34 on a Demetrius Miller 3-pointer with 10:45 to play.
FLC, however, answered with an 11-0 run of its own to go up 45-43 with 6:33 left.
The Roadrunners battled back to go up 48-45 moments later, but it would be the last time they would lead. Ayala and Matthews traded tough layups after that to put the Skyhawks up 53-48 and whip the crowd into a frenzy.
Miller hit four free throws to cut the lead to 53-52 with 1:03 left, but Ayala was fouled on the inbounds, hit a pair of his own free throws, and he’d score FLC’s final eight points – six on free throws – to ice an historic victory.
“I say it was my teammates. They said, ‘Always go get the ball, Marcus. Attack the rim,’” Ayala said. “They have confidence in me, which gives me confidence back in myself.
“I would say (Matthews) is fearless. He went out there and played tough.”
The 1-3-1 pressure defense of Fort Lewis (18-4, 15-4 RMAC) did its part down the stretch. The Roadrunners, playing down the stretch without the fouled-out Mitch McCarron and Nicholas Kay, shot just 27 percent in the second half to finish with their lowest point total of the season, and they went 5 minutes, 6 seconds without a field goal, tallying a meaningless Brandon Jefferson jumper with 12 seconds to play.
“I thought our 1-3-1 pressure was pretty good, the zone, and you hate to put a different light on it, the fact that Mitch McCarron got fouled out didn’t hurt either. ... We had different people step up,” FLC head coach Bob Hofman said.
Herrera, who like Matthews scored nine points, did his best work defensively, holding powerful Metro State center Jonathan Morse to just six points, although he grabbed 10 rebounds. Jefferson led the Roadrunners with 15 points, while Miller chipped in 11.
“We just needed to push him out, because when he’s off the block, he’s not as good as when he is on the block,” Herrera said of Morse.
The Skyhawks jumped ahead 23-14 in the first half and led 25-18 with 7:28 left in the half. But they scored just three points the rest of the frame, all on free throws, as Metro State took a 32-28 edge into the locker room.
Now FLC must come down off the high of Friday’s big victory and focus on Regis at 7:30 p.m. today. It’ll be Senior Night for Ayala, Matt Mazarei, Torrey Udall and Matthias Weissl.
But, before that, on Friday night – after 22 others had experimented – Fort Lewis proved it had the right mixture.