One game for a conference championship – it doesn’t get much bigger than Saturday night’s showdown at Whalen Gymnasium.
No. 21 Fort Lewis College men’s basketball will host the Westminster College Griffins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the final game of the regular season for both teams. The winner will be crowned the regular season Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference champion.
“In college basketball, it’s men versus men,” said FLC senior captain Rasmus Bach. “If you’re all about competition, this is what it’s all about. It’s the biggest game of the year.”
FLC (21-5, 17-4 RMAC) will be in pursuit of its sixth regular-season title, while it would be the first in the RMAC for Westminster after it joined the conference in 2015. The two teams have split the previous four matchups.
Westminster (21-4, 17-4 RMAC), a private college based in Salt Lake City with a student enrollment of 2,127 students, is in its final year of a transition period from the NAIA level to NCAA Division II and is not yet eligible for postseason play in the RMAC or NCAA tournaments. Saturday will be the last game of the season for the Griffins, but they have a chance to go out as champions behind seven seniors hungry to earn a trophy.
“We have no postseason, so we start the year talking about being in position at the end of the year to have the games matter,” said Westminster head coach Norm Parrish. “Our guys are excited, I think. We haven’t talked about it a whole lot, to be honest. We’ve taken everything one game at a time. Now that we’re here, the attitude is really good.”
FLC’s last regular-season conference title came in 2016, and the Skyhawks went on to win the RMAC tournament that year, too. FLC won its first RMAC crown in 1987 and won again in 1989 before a long drought that lasted until 2005, when FLC split the title with Metro State and Nebraska-Kearney. FLC claimed its fourth title in 2008. The RMAC has crowned a men’s basketball regular-season champion every year since the 1969-70 season.
After the Skyhawks have played 1,040 minutes this season, they will play another 40 minutes Saturday with a chance to etch their names in the history books once more.
“All that we’ve done has earned us the right to play 40 minutes on our home court for a championship,” said FLC third-year head coach Bob Pietrack, who led the team to the 2016 titles and a runner-up finish in 2017. “If you tell us Sept. 1 that we would have a championship game at home, we would take it. We respect the opponent, but we know we control our own destiny.”
Fort Lewis and Westminster truly have been destined to meet for the title all season. The Griffins gave the Skyhawks their first conference loss in a 90-75 game Dec. 15 in Salt Lake City.
“(Fort Lewis) hit us in the face hard coming out of halftime and took a lead, but we didn’t fold,” Parrish said. “We had some guys make some shots, and they frankly missed a few shots. We persevered a little more, and they were on the road, and it’s tough on the road. The reality is that the game was closer than the final score. We just had a four- or five-minute stretch where we went on a 12-0 run, but I never felt good about it. Fort Lewis has so many guys that can score.”
Fifteen games later, the two teams have proved they are the top forces in the conference. Along the way, FLC picked up a key sweep of Regis University, which until Thursday night was mathematically alive for a conference championship until Westminster beat Adams State 84-78 in Alamosa. FLC also swept regional rivals Colorado Mesa and Western State to go with a key home win against Metro State.
FLC has lost two in a row, with both losses coming on the road at rivals Colorado School of Mines and Adams State. But the Skyhawks own a 13-0 home record, and the team will hope for another magical night inside Whalen Gymnasium.
The Skyhawks aim to pack the 2,250-seat arena by offering half-price tickets for a fan appreciation night.
“We need a great student section,” Pietrack said. “Any time in college basketball when you’ve got a great crowd, you look at that student section. I hope our students are supportive. Our town crowd, they are as loyal as you can get, and I know they will be there. We need the place rocking like it normally is for big games. I hope that energy will spur us on. We need to be home with that extra juice.”
FLC is fresh off a brutal four-game road trip against all rival opponents. The team is coming off its worst defensive performance of the season, as it allowed 107 points Tuesday night to Adams State. It’s been a rough stretch, but the Skyhawks are ready to move on.
“What we’ve done the last four months or four games doesn’t mean anything for these next 40 minutes,” Pietrack said.
The Skyhawks will celebrate five seniors who Pietrack has leaned on heavily all season. The group is led by Bach, the player with more wins in an FLC jersey than any other at 95 victories. Bach has led the team with 15.1 points per game, as he is now second on the FLC career scoring list. He also has averaged 5.1 rebounds and 3.84 assists per game.
Senior guard Daniel Hernandez has added 13.4 points per game, and junior Marquel Beasley has averaged 13.3 points while boasting the best shooting percentage of any player in the RMAC at 56.4 percent. DJ Miles, another senior guard, has averaged 12.9 points per game. Senior center Brandon Wilson has averaged 10 points and eight rebounds per game, and Beasley is 10th in the RMAC with 6.7 rebounds per game.
FLC hasn’t had a true point guard all season, but has benefited from putting Miles at the point and allowing the shooter to pass the ball around to the team’s various weapons without sacrificing his own production.
The key for FLC is working the shot clock, as several quick shots Tuesday against Adams State led to easy transition buckets for the Grizzlies, who scored 66 points in the pain in the game.
“The way we look at it is we haven’t been gelling as well on offense lately,” Bach said. “For us, it’s about not shooting ourselves in the foot. That’s what we did against Mines and Adams. We’re not taking bad shots, we’re just taking quick shots. We have to take our time on offense, and that’s our best defense.”
FLC boasts the top-scoring offense in the league at 86.7 points per game, while Westminster has the top-scoring defense in the RMAC at 67.6 points per game. FLC is tops in the RMAC at outscoring opponents by a 10.5-point margin, while Wesminster is third at 9.2 points.
The Griffins have been led by senior star Dayon Goodman, who paces the RMAC with 28 points per game and ranks second with 8.5 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-8, 200-pound forward also ranks third in field-goal percentage at 55.6 percent.
“His numbers have just been outstanding,” Parrish said of his star. “He was good last year, but he’s really matured and completely bought in and trusted the system. Last year, he was kind of quiet. This year, he’s a talkative leader. I’ve gotta hand it to him.”
Goodman’s scoring per game ranks second in the nation. He also shoots roughly 40 percent from 3-point land and nearly 90 percent from the free-throw line.
“I think the whole team should say a prayer before the game and hope he doesn’t make everything,” Pietrack said of how his team can defend Goodman. “We will do our best job to give him different looks and hope he doesn’t have a special night.”
In this season’s previous matchup, Goodman scored 24 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Sam Orchard, a senior point guard, had a huge game with 26 points, eight assists, three steals and five rebounds. Pietrack said Wilson and a mix of zone defenses will be the team’s best bet at slowing Goodman.
“No one has guarded him all year. It’s like the Josh Blaylock factor that we had the last few years here with Josh. At some point, you’re not sure if anybody can guard him,” Pietrack said. “It’s about whether or not he’s going to make everything. We will throw the kitchen sink at him and try to make it hard on him and hope he misses.”
Westminster plays an eight-man rotation that features seven seniors. The Griffins are disciplined and seasoned, and the Skyhawks won’t be able to take them by surprise.
Regardless of Saturday’s result, FLC will host an RMAC tournament quarterfinal game Tuesday as the tournament’s top seed. A win would grant FLC the right to host the semifinals and finals of the tournament. But the Skyhawks don’t want to chase the RMAC cup without adding the regular-season plaque to its trophy case first.
“We’re going to come out and give it all we’ve got for our fans,” Bach said. “It’s a chance to win the RMAC title the last game of the year. Let’s get it done.”