Fort Lewis College, a small school in the mountain town of Durango with less resources than its rivals, is champion of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference for the second time in the last three years and for the sixth time in its men’s basketball program history.
The conference championship was in the balance against Westminster College of Salt Lake City with the two teams tied in the standings going into the final night of the season Saturday. A year ago, FLC saw the conference title slip away on the final day of the regular season with a loss at Westminster that gave the title to Colorado School of Mines.
This year, the winner of No. 21 Fort Lewis and Westminster would be crowned regular-season champion. The Skyhawks played with high energy and determined focus Saturday night, and the result was a 75-67 victory to give FLC the title at home inside a packed Whalen Gymnasium where FLC is now 14-0 this season.
“This is what it’s all about,” FLC third-year head coach Bob Pietrack said. “I’m so thankful and blessed, both coach (Daniel Steffensen) and I are, to coach such a great group of guys. We went wire-to-wire this year, didn’t spend a night in second place. The journey wasn’t easy. There were peaks and valleys. ... Even this week is a little bit of a metaphor for the human experience where you can go from pretty rock bottom to the top of the summit pretty quick.
“This is a marathon of an RMAC season. To get the title back, the title we didn’t get last year, to get it back, it took four months, and it’s really, really gratifying.”
FLC’s rock bottom came only four days earlier in Alamosa, as the Skyhawks (22-5, 18-4 RMAC) lost a second consecutive game in embarrassing fashion, 107-93, at Adams State. But the coaching staff kept the players positive all week in preparation for Saturday’s showdown with Westminster. FLC senior captain Rasmus Bach said he thought the team might have lost Saturday’s game without learning lessons from the previous two losses.
“Because of tonight, I think Tuesday is the best thing that could have happened to us,” Pietrack said. “When you win as many games as we have the last three years, you kind of take winning for granted. Tuesday opened our eyes to what we had to be as a staff and as a team. No one pointed fingers, we just owned it. Tonight, we were beautiful.”
The Skyahwks played team defense to keep the Griffins (21-5, 17-5 RMAC) in check. Pietrack said the team played as hard as it could start to finish, and it was evident.
Westminster senior guard Dayon Goodman, who entered the game second in the nation in points per game at 28, picked up two quick personal fouls in the game’s opening three minutes. He was able to avoid foul trouble much of the rest of the night, but he was limited to only 29 minutes of play and 16 points to go with a team-high nine rebounds. He was limited to 10 shot attempts and only four free throws.
The duo of Marquel Beasley and Brandon Wilson, along with the Skyhawks’ defense inside, frustrated Goodman all night.
“They battled Dayon hard,” said Westminster head coach Norm Parrish. “Everything he threw up, there was always a guy in the key on him. It wasn’t a true double-team, but when he turned to shoot, there was always a guy on him.”
The Skyhawks also limited Westminster point guard Sam Orchard to only three points and five rebounds. He didn’t record an assist and turned the ball over five times. In a 90-75 loss at Westminster on Dec. 15 of this season, Orchard had 26 points, eight assists and five rebounds.
While Goodman and Orchard were kept in check, Westminster’s Quincy Bair made it a game. He scored a game-high 33 points on 10-of-13 shooting, including a perfect 5-of-5 performance from behind the 3-point line, that helped Westminster to a 9-of-17 showing from deep. Bair also made all eight of his free throws.
“Quincy was huge,” Parrish said. “In reality, Dayon has been consistent all year. When we’ve lost some games, it’s been because nobody else stepped up. When Quincy steps up, we’re really good. Unfortunately, Dayon didn’t get as many minutes or get in rhythm. We just had to be tougher.”
FLC outrebounded the Griffins 33-26 and were led by senior center Brandon Wilson’s 11 rebounds to go with 10 points. Wilson had six offensive rebounds, and FLC had 12 offensive boards as a team that turned into 14 second-chance points.
Junior Alex Semadeni led FLC in scoring with 17 points off the bench on a 6-of-7 shooting performance that included a miracle 3-pointer from well beyond the arch as the shot clock was about to expire.
Semadeni, known as an energy player who often passes up shots to set up teammates, was more than willing to shoot Saturday while igniting a capacity crowd.
“If my teammates can put me in the right opportunity, you know I’ll knock that shot down,” Semadeni said of his multiple mid-range jumpers from the baseline. “I think the coaches and my teammates have been telling me to be aggressive. I know that’s my shot, it’s been my shot since high school. I know I’m a shooter, and they’ve done a good job telling me to be aggressive. Once you make the first couple, then you’re just feeling it.”
Bach and Beasley scored 13 points each, and Beasley added five rebounds, one steal and a huge block on a Goodman layup attempt.
“Pretty much just locked in doing whatever I can to help my teammates,” Beasley said of his effort against Goodman. “Great team defense.”
Daniel Hernandez added nine crucial points to go with a game-high four assists. He also drew a charge on Westminster’s Tanner Newbold with 31.7 seconds to play that gave FLC the ball back with a 73-67 lead.
FLC built a lead as large as 10 points with 13 minutes to play in the game, but the Griffins cut that to 64-63. Beasley and Wilson gave FLC a cushion with baskets in the face of Goodman to go up 68-63 and put the team in position to control the final two minutes of the game.
While FLC won the conference championship and will host the RMAC tournament next week, Westminster’s season came to an end. It is the final year of a transition period for the Griffins, who joined the RMAC and NCAA Division II in 2015 and are not postseason-eligible until the transition period is complete.
“This is what you shoot for all year,” Parrish said. “Unfortunately, Fort Lewis is a really good team and I don’t think we brought our best.
“This year, it was us and Fort Lewis always at the top. Ten or 12 games ago, I kind of figured it would come down to this game. I’m proud of the team. We’re a good team with tough kids. We stuck together, guarded fairly good tonight, but 11 turnovers in the second half killed us.”
FLC will open the RMAC quarterfinals at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday against Western State Colorado University. FLC owns a 93-92 overtime win at home against the Mountaineers and a 76-69 road win against them this season. The Mountaineers had to win the final two games of the regular season on the road to get the eighth and final seed of the tournament. They beat New Mexico Highlands and CSU-Pueblo to get in.
As for the Skyhawks’ focus going into next week, Bach said it is simple.
“Not sharing a ring with anybody else,” he said. “That’s the only goal.”