All eyes have shifted to Durango for the pinnacle of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference men’s basketball season for the second time in the last three years.
Regular-season champion and 25th-ranked Fort Lewis College will welcome the other top teams in the conference for the semifinals and championship of the RMAC tournament this weekend. The first semifinal will tip off at 5 p.m. Friday inside Whalen Gymnasium on the FLC campus, as second-seed Regis University will take on third-seed Colorado School of Mines. After that game’s completion, the host Skyhawks will face fourth-seed Adams State University to determine the matchup for the 7:05 p.m. championship game Saturday. The winner of the championship gets an automatic bid into the NCAA South Central Region tournament.
“We talked at the very beginning of the season as a group. We are not chasing any individual accolades, we are chasing championships from the staff all the way down,” FLC third-year head coach Bob Pietrack said. “We’re excited to be playing in the final four and beyond with a chance for another championship this weekend.”
Here’s a closer look at Friday’s semifinal matchups:
Adams State (17-12) at Fort Lewis (23-5)The Skyhawks are hungry for revenge against a Grizzlies team that torched them 107-93 only 10 days prior to Friday night’s semifinal. FLC senior captain Rasmus Bach said the team was “punked” by ASU in that game, and the team is eager for another chance against a team they beat 103-96 in overtime back on Dec. 12.
“They left that salty taste in my mouth,” said FLC junior forward Marquel Beasley, who scored a career-high 36 points Tuesday night in the RMAC quarterfinal win, 88-73, against Western State Colorado University. “I’m very hungry for them.”
ASU presents a tough matchup but hasn’t been the same team on the road this year as at home with a 6-7 road record compared to a 9-3 mark at home. FLC is 15-0 at home this season and hopes to make it 16-0 with a chance to cut down the nets for a second consecutive Saturday.
To get to Saturday’s championship, FLC has to slow down ASU point guard Brandon Sly. The All-RMAC First Team selection has averaged 18.3 points per game to go with 6.1 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game. He also averages more than 1.5 steals per game.
“Sly is electric with the ball,” Pietrack said. “He’s a good distributor; the best point guard in the league. We can’t let him influence the game as much as we did last time.”
FLC also must slow down the pace of Shane Johnson, who has averaged 17.6 points per game. In the previous matchup, Johnson burned FLC for 30 points, while Sly had a double-double of 20 points and 10 assists to go with five rebounds. Jarrett Givens and Frederick Jackson also are key Grizzlies, as Givens has scored 13 points per game and Jackson has led the team in rebounding with 6.2 boards per game to go with 9.7 points and 37 blocked shots.
FLC has leaned on its seniors much of the year. Bach’s 15 points per game have paced the team, and he’s also averaged five rebounds and nearly four assists per game. Beasley has come on strong with 14.1 points per game to go with 6.5 rebounds. Senior guards Daniel Hernandez and DJ Miles have averaged 13 points and 12.4 points per contest, respectively, and senior center Brandon Wilson completes the starting five also in double-digit scoring at 10 points per game to go with a team-high 8.1 rebounds.
Both contests against ASU this year have been high-paced, up-and-down games. Tuesday, Metro State slowed down the Grizzlies in a 64-61 contest. Pietrack isn’t as concerned about the pace of Friday’s game as he is about his team being efficient on offense.
“We just have to play our game,” Pietrack said. “Obviously, we can’t give up 107 points and think we’re going to beat anybody. We have to be better in transition and getting back. They shot 68 percent against us last time. Defensively, they’re a handful, but we have to be efficient on offense to be better defensively.”
Undefeated at home, FLC boasts one of the top fan environments in the conference. Students will depart for spring break after classes Friday, and the Skyhawks hope the student section sticks around a couple of days to support the team. Whether or not that happens, the Skyhawks are asking the loyal fans of the Four Corners to show up in force.
“I’d love for the students to be there. They make a big difference,” Pietrack said. “If we can have them, that’s great. But, if not, we will have to rely on the town’s crowd to pack the Whalen on Friday night.”
Colorado Mines (22-7) vs. Regis (24-5)The first game Friday is anything but an undercard fight with two powerhouse programs with unlimited resources from the Front Range going toe-to-toe.
Colorado Mines claimed last year’s RMAC regular season and tournament championships before going on to host and win the NCAA South Central Region tournament to reach the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division II tournament.
The Orediggers are hungry for a win to try to get back into this year’s regional tournament, while Regis looks to be a lock for regionals while searching for its first RMAC tournament championship in program history.
“That’s a regional-type matchup,” Pietrack said of Colorado Mines and Regis. “Both of those teams should be playing in regionals next week. It’s postseason, tournament basketball and should be an outstanding game.”
The two split the regular-season meetings with the road team winning each game. Colorado Mines beat Regis 69-58 on Dec. 3, and the Rangers who beat the Orediggers 68-67 on Feb. 2 thanks to a buzzer-beating layup from Christian Little.
Colorado Mines is fresh off a 95-83 win in the quarterfinals at home against University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Duke Douglas scored a career-high 29 points and RMAC Freshman of the Year Michael Glen had 13 points in the game. Mines is the top 3-point shooting team in all of Division II at 43.9 percent. Luke Schroepfer leads the team and is 12th in the country with 74 made 3s while hitting 46.3 percent from long range. Mason Baker has hit 52.9 percent of his 3s off the bench, while Ben Sonnefeld, Glen and Luke Golter have all made more than 40 percent of their long-range attempts.
Regis, which beat Black Hills State 78-66 in the RMAC quarterfinals Tuesday, is led by senior forward Dexter Sienko, the RMAC Defensive Player of the Year. Sienko has averaged 14.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.1 blocked shots per game.
Little has averaged 14.4 points per game and leads the team with three assists per contest. Jarrett Brodbeck, a red-hot 3-point shooter, has averaged 14 points, while Ty McGee has given the Rangers a fourth man in double figures with 12.3 points a night.
The game is likely to be decided by 3-point shooting and defense, and both teams are more than capable of winning that battle.