CANYON, Texas - The champions of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference regular season rode a charter bus more than 500 miles into the belly of the beast. Now, the Fort Lewis College men’s basketball team will look to shock the beast when it opens play in the NCAA Division II tournament.
FLC received the fourth seed in the South Central Region and will try to win three games to reach the Elite Eight in South Dakota. Before the Skyhawks (24-6) can even think about the Elite Eight, they will have a tough showdown at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against fifth-seed Texas A&M Commerce (21-8) of the mighty Lone Star Conference. The game will be played at the First United Bank Center in Canyon, Texas, home of top-seed West Texas A&M.
“When you come to Texas and play in their state, we’re looked at as not as fast, not as strong or athletic,” FLC senior captain Rasmus Bach said. “That’s not the case with our team. There’s a chip on our shoulder.”
The Lions finished third in the Lone Star under head coach Jaret Von Rosenberg. While the Lions boast a well-rounded team, it is 6-foot, 175-pound junior point guard Reggie Reid of Harlem, Georgia, who will have the attention of the Skyhawks’ defense.
Reid, who played two years at Florida Gulf Coast before he transferred to Texas A&M Commerce, has averaged 16.6 points, 4.3 assists and four rebounds per game.
He’s said to be faster than Adams State guard Brandon Sly, regarded as the fastest guard in the RMAC. Because of his speed and ability, FLC will start senior defensive specialist Kane Martinez, with Daniel Hernandez to come off the bench. Martinez has seen Reid play before, and the two exchanged handshakes when the two teams ran into each other before FLC practiced Friday.
“It’s fun going into the game knowing I can be a big part of helping stop a team,” Martinez said. “I went to a prep school in Florida, and Reggie was the point guard on the high school team. I don’t know his game completely, but I’ve seen it on film. I’m ready to do my job.”
Slowing Reid will be a team effort for FLC. Head coach Bob Pietrack said the team needs to slow the pace and stay in front of Reid to have success.
“We gotta transition and we gotta rebound,” Pietrack said. “If we can keep them out of transition and limit them to one shot per possession, we’ll have a good chance to be in the game late. If not, it can get into a track meet, and we don’t want to be in that.”
On paper, FLC has plenty of advantages against the Lions, but it’s a different world when RMAC teams run into Lone Star opponents. FLC has the experience to get the job done after slaying Tarleton State a year ago and Heartland Conference foe Dallas Baptist in the tournament in 2016.
And, when it comes to rebounding, nobody on the floor Saturday night is better than Skyhawks senior center Brandon Wilson, who has averaged 10.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.
“That’s the main thing I bring to the team and pride myself on,” Wilson said. “If I do my best on the boards and try to limit their offensive rebounds, we’ll be in good shape. I want to go on a run in this tournament. It would be a very special end to my career.”
The Lions have gone 6-6 on the road this year but 5-1 on neutral floors. It will feel like a home game even in a rival’s gym for the Texas school that will bus in fans, cheerleaders and a band for the game.
Texas A&M Commerce has scored 76.3 points per game and has allowed 69.4 to opponents. Willie Rooks gives the team a second double-digit scorer at 15.7 points per game. He’s the team’s top 3-point shooter at 37.8 percent while he has made 2.6 3s per game.
Dorian Armstrong is a gritty Lion who has averaged eight points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds per game.
FLC was the top scoring team in the RMAC at 86.1 points per game and allowed opponents 76.1. The Skyhawks shot a strong 49.6 percent from the field during the season and held opponents to 42.7 percent, which is roughly what the Lions have shot from the field this year.
While FLC’s five seniors have been key all year, junior Marquel Beasley has been a huge presence in the second half of the season. He has averaged 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game, and has made an astounding 57.5 percent of his shot attempts. Behind Beasley’s all-around play and the energy junior Alex Semadeni has provided off the bench, FLC has the men to compete with the Lions as long as key players avoid foul trouble.
“Finally we get to see some other competition than the RMAC,” FLC senior guard DJ Miles said. “I’m excited for it and to see how everybody steps up. As a competitor, this is the type of stuff you live for.”
Pietrack, who has gone 2-2 in the NCAA tournament in his first two years as FLC’s head coach, is optimistic the team can get hot and make a run.
“Any win in the regional tournament turns a year another star up,” he said. “If you’re having a great year and win a regional game, it becomes a special year. We know what we have in front of us with a very good Commerce team, and we have to play our best game of the year to get the result we want.
“If you don’t play well, you’ll lose. That’s a guarantee here.”