Fort Lewis College was without its superstar player for much of Friday’s season-opening game in Albuquerque. With a group of new players who practiced fully together for the first time on Thursday afternoon, the Skyhawks collectively rallied to a big regional victory.
Senior forward Marquel Beasley played only four minutes in the first half with three personal fouls, and he picked up a fourth foul with 14 minutes, 40 seconds to play in the second half and had to go back to the bench. FLC fourth-year head coach Bob Pietrack went with his gut and put Beasley back in the game with 10:37 to play, and Beasley played the rest of the game to help the Skyhawks rally past Eastern New Mexico 82-74 on Friday afternoon at the Rudy Davalos Basketball Center, the practice facility for the University of New Mexico.
Beasley finished with 15 points on 4-of-6 shooting from the field and 6-of-6 shooting at the free-throw line and scored the game’s final two points. After he checked into the game for the final time, he hit a 3-point shot on the heels of a 3 from junior Keven Biggs to give the Skyhawks a 57-51 lead in what would be a back-and-forth final 10 minutes of a hard-fought game.
“We had to go for it,” Pietrack said of putting Beasley back into the game. “If he fouls out, he fouls out. Marquel showed like an All-American those last 10 minutes.”
With Beasley on the bench, the Skyhawks (1-0) got big contributions from their newcomers. Biggs poured in 11 points in the first half to help the team go into the break tied 35-35.
“That’s a big scoring piece for our team,” Biggs said of Beasley. “To see him out, I knew somebody had to give the team a boost of energy.”
Biggs finished with a team-high 20 points, as the transfer from Pima Community College in Arizona made an immediate impression with a 6-of-9 shooting performance that included 5-of-7 from behind the 3-point line.
“Keven Biggs was primetime tonight,” Pietrack said. “You see why he had such an illustrious junior college career. When the lights came on, so did Keven Biggs.”
Biggs was playing against one of his good friends in Isaiah Murphy, who had eight points for the Greyhounds (0-1).
“He’s my old high school and (junior college) running mate,” Biggs said. “We have a long history together. It was good to get out there and get bragging rights over him for a bit. I’m excited about that.”
Fort Lewis saw big-time play out of a few players Pietrack wasn’t even sure would be physically able to play until practice Thursday afternoon. FLC junior forward Riley Farris separated his left shoulder earlier in the preseason. He was fitted for a brace Wednesday night and tried it out before Friday’s game. He was supposed to be available only in limited minutes, but he would play 26 minutes and score 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting and a perfect 4-of-4 at the foul line. Farris checked in on offensive sets the final two minutes, while senior transfer Otas Iyekekpolor subbed in defensively.
“I had no idea what would happen,” Farris said. “I was playing good and people were getting me the ball, and the shoulder felt OK. We came together before the game and during the game and played for each other.”
After Mike Ranson, an FLC senior guard, hit a huge 3 to give Fort Lewis a 71-70 lead with 1:44 to play, Farris followed it with a defensive rebound and a 3-pointer of his own to give the Skyhawks a cushion at 74-70 with 59 seconds to play. Farris also led FLC with five rebounds.
“Farris is really tough. His shoulder is half falling off, and he gave us 26 minutes and 19 points and hit the dagger 3,” Pietrck said. “Farris is a fourth-year junior, a program guy. He’s a champion, and we wouldn’t expect anything else.”
Point guard A.J. Sparks, a transfer from Jacksonville Junior College, made his FLC debut one day after being medically cleared to play after a back injury kept him out of practice the entire preseason. One minute into the game, Pietrack subbed Sparks in for starter Cesar Molina, and he gave the team seven points – all from the foul line – including four in the game’s final 30 seconds. Sparks added four assists.
“When Cesar got the early foul, we just followed our guts,” Pietrack said. “We threw A.J. in. I’m sure glad we did. He gave us 24 great minutes and hit big free throws down the stretch. He kept our rhythm, and that was so important. I’m super proud of A.J. and the whole team.”
FLC senior guard Alex Semadeni finished with 13 points and a team-high five assists.
Chukuka Emili led all scorers with 21 points for the Greyhounds, who scored 46 points in the paint compared to only 18 for Fort Lewis.
The Skyhawks committed 17 turnovers, and Eastern New Mexico turned those into 22 points. While FLC turned the ball over a lot, the team combined for 20 assists and shot well above average at 52 percent from the field, 54 percent from 3-point territory and 88 percent from the foul line, as the Skyhawks made 22-of-25 free throws to only 7-of-14 from the Greyhounds.
Eastern New Mexico’s paint advantage was evident with 11 offensive rebounds to only two for the Skyhawks, though FLC kept the rebounding margin close at 31-28 in favor of Eastern New Mexico.
FLC’s defense stood strong after Ranson’s go-ahead 3 and held the Greyhounds to 1-of-5 shooting in the final 1:50 of play.
“We needed every bit from everyone,” Pietrack said. “Sometimes when your feet are to the fire, you run faster. That was tonight. Eastern is a big, physical, strong team. We knew rebounds would be tough. We made our free throws, and that’s a recipe for winning regional-style games. That’s exactly what this was, a regional game against a Lone Star Conference team played at a very high level.”
The Skyhawks will face Western New Mexico at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, this time inside Dreamstyle Arena, more famously known as “The Pit,” in Albuquerque, the home of the University of New Mexico Lobos.