Saturday games in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference are as tough as they come in all of NCAA Division II basketball. No matter the opponent, teams find themselves in slugfests, and the Skyhawks found themselves in a heavyweight brawl for the second time in as many nights.
The second weekend of RMAC men’s basketball delivered thrilling games. Saturday night inside Whalen Gymnasium in Durango, Western State Colorado University of Gunnison gave the No. 15 Fort Lewis College Skyhawks its best shot, but the Skyhawks prevailed 93-92 in an overtime thriller.
Western State’s Christian Smith took a pass from Quincy Harding and scored a layup to force overtime with the game tied at 85-85. Harding hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with a hand in his face with less than 11 seconds to play in overtime, and the Mountaineers held a 93-92 lead. But the senior-driven Skyhawks didn’t flinch.
The Skyhawks quickly got the ball across halfcourt and called timeout with 6.8 seconds to play. With the Mountaineers all expecting the ball to go to FLC senior Rasmus Bach, FLC associate head coach Daniel Steffensen didn’t blink when he looked at head coach Bob Pietrack and called a play for senior guard Daniel Hernandez.
Hernandez rewarded the coaches. In an isolation play designed to clear space in the middle of the floor for the 5-foot-8, 165-pound guard, Hernandez drove toward the basket and drew a foul from Monroe Porter to get to the free-throw line with 2.2 seconds to play in overtime. Hernandez made both free throws, and a last-second heave by the Mountaineers fell well short, as the Skyhawks earned the win to remain unbeaten in conference play.
“It’s the beautiful part of sport,” Pietrack said. “In Eastern New Mexico in our one loss this year, we had the ball with 14 seconds and up two points, and Daniel had a costly turnover. He was really down on himself for it. Less than a month later, he makes the two free throws in a league game to win it. I couldn’t be happier for that young man to be at the line and hit those two shots. It’s the beautiful thing about sports and teams.”
Hernandez had supreme confidence he would either get to the rim or draw a foul, especially after he heard Pietrack specifically tell referee Layne Barney to watch for the hand-check foul.
“We’ve used that isolation play all season,” Hernandez said. “I got, I wouldn’t say lucky because he did hit me, but I knew as long as I went hard and didn’t shy away from contact that I’ll get that call most of the time.”
Hernandez’s game-winning free throws capped off a remarkable game for both teams from the foul line. Fort Lewis (7-1, 4-0 RMAC) went 24-of-26 from the foul line, and the Mountaineers (3-7, 1-3 RMAC) were a perfect 12-of-12.
“We needed all of them tonight,” Pietrack said. “The fact that everybody pretty much made all of them, and (Bach, Marquel Beasley and Hernandez) were unbelievably clutch.”
Hernandez finished with a team-high 21 points for his fourth consecutive 20-plus-point game. He was 7-of-14 shooting, including 3-of-4 from behind the 3-point line. He made all four of his free throws in the game. He also added five rebounds and three assists to only one turnover.
Bach was huge in the second half and overtime. He finished with 19 points on 6-of-12 shooting and 7-of-7 from the free-throw line. He added five rebounds and three assists. Bach led the attack to the rim early, an area the Skyhawks focused on attacking.
“That was kind of our plan. Back-to-back nights, the legs are going to be a little tired,” Bach said. “You have to get to the free-throw line and get in a rhythm and the shots will fall later.”
A night after picking up a hard-fought 96-80 win against Colorado Mesa University in a game much closer than the final score indicated, the Skyhawks had another tough test. FLC went down 15-5 early but reeled off a 25-6 run behind seven points each from Riley Farris and Alex Semadeni, who checked into the game with the team down 10.
Beasley had a big night with 16 points and seven rebounds. Three of those rebounds came on the offensive end and led to second-chance points by way of putback dunks. Beasley played only 13 minutes against Colorado Mesa after battling foul trouble, and he was eager to stay on the floor Saturday.
“I knew I had to crash and keep us in the game and try to get second-chance points,” Beasley said. “It’s real important for me to play my role and do that job, so I kept my focus on that. I was real fired up for this one and wanted to come out with energy.”
FLC led 41-32 at halftime but was outscored 53-44 in the second half, as the Mountaineers shot 69 percent in the second half compared to only 37.5 percent in the first.
Harding scored a game-high 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting, including 3-of-4 from 3-point land and 3-of-3 from the foul line. He added six assists and four rebounds. West finished with 13 points, five assists and three rebounds. Michael Hill added 21 points off the bench on 9-of-13 shooting for the Mountaineers.
“Those guys did a fantastic job for us tonight, as did our whole team,” said Western State head coach Bradd Schafer. “I’m super proud of our team. They deserved to win that game tonight, and it’s frustrating. It’s hard to talk to them about it right now, but those guys stepped up and did some great things.”
Western State quickly shook off the big Fort Lewis run in the first half and played like a conference contender the rest of the night. With a roster loaded with seniors, the Mountaineers sent a message to the rest of the RMAC that it won’t be a pushover despite a 1-3 start to conference play.
“Western is an unbelievably well-coached team,” Pietrack said. “They’re a real program with kids that care about their school and do things the right way. They stood toe-to-toe with us. I told every kid in the handshake line what a great game I thought it was. This is a great sport, and this league is unbelievably tough. This is a big time win for us, and I couldn’t be prouder of the start we’re off to.”
Fort Lewis got another big game out of Brandon Wilson, who had 13 points and nine rebounds. Semadeni finished with 10 points, five rebounds and two assists, and Farris had nine points, three rebounds and three assists.
FLC and Colorado Mines (10-0, 4-0 RMAC) stand as the lone unbeaten teams in the conference after two weeks of league play. Four teams are at 3-1, including Adams State (5-5, 3-1 RMAC), which lost 90-87 to Colorado Mesa in overtime Saturday. The Grizzlies will visit Fort Lewis at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Pietrack said the team will study film the next two days and rest up tired legs to be ready for another big game.
“It’s 4-0 versus 3-1 on Tuesday night,” Pietrack said. “It’s a very good Adams team, the most improved team in the league by far. With this 22-game schedule in the conference, any win is an unbelievably great win. It doesn’t make a difference how you get it.”