There’s magic in Whalen Gymnasium, and Fort Lewis College men’s basketball head coach Bob Pietrack has made it his stage for some mind-bending tricks in his four years as head coach of the Skyhawks.
Pietrack’s team delivered another miracle comeback Friday night to improve Pietrack’s home record to 50-2, and he became the fastest coach in NCAA history to 50 home victories.
Friday’s result was never certain until the final whistle. The Skyhawks erased a 14-point deficit in the game’s final 12 minutes, 51 seconds, and the team still trailed 53-41 with less than nine minutes to play.
Behind the play of All-American talent Marquel Beasley, key moments from junior transfer Keven Biggs and the heart of a ’Hawks team that has a championship pedigree, FLC stormed back to claim a 65-62 victory against a gritty University of the Southwest team.
“There’s obviously a reason he got there so fast,” FLC senior Alex Semadeni said of Pietrack’s 50th home win. “He’s created a culture here that values playing the right way, and I’m honored to play for him and be on this journey with him.”
The Skyhawks (3-1) had to overcome a bit of everything Friday night. Junior forward Riley Farris, an All-Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference talent, re-injured his left shoulder only minutes to the game, and Pietrack fears he will miss substantial time the rest of the season. Junior guard A.J. Sparks also re-aggravated a back injury and was able to play only six minutes after he started Wednesday’s home opener.
Pietrack picked up only his second career technical foul in the first half, and NCAA Division II FLC trailed its NAIA foe 35-25 at halftime.
The Skyhawks shot only 34.8 percent from the field during the game and made only 5-of-22 shots from behind the 3-point line. Even worse, FLC missed 17 free throws and went only 12-of-29 from the foul line in the game.
“We played poor. We shot poor, we shot from the free-throw line very poor,” Pietrack said. “We had Riley Farris get hurt two minutes into the game after he had made a bucket, and it just sucked the air out of the building. We didn’t play very good, but in the last 10 minutes, really proud of the guys, especially our seniors, for really willing it. Those guys really played hard the last 10 minutes and everybody contributed. Credit Southwest for playing really hard, but super proud of our team facing real adversity down 14 in a building where we don’t lose very often and just finding a way somehow to win a game.”
FLC was down 53-43 with 7:56 to play going into a media timeout. Right out of the break, Otas Iyekekpolor, a senior forward, hit a 3-pointer to give FLC life. A big defensive stop from Beasley led to a Biggs 3-point shot, and the Skyhawks suddenly were within 53-49 with 7 minutes to play.
Semadeni then came up with a steal, as the FLC pressure defense got to the Mustangs (1-5). He passed the ball ahead to Biggs, who was fouled to go to the free-throw line. Semadeni let out a roar, and the fans inside Whalen Gymnasium were brought to their feet.
“We needed (Biggs) desperately,” Pietrack said. “We talk about not being discouraged and staying determined and that we need everybody, and we really did need everybody.”
Biggs made both free throws, and FLC was within 53-51. Southwest maintained its lead at 58-55, but another FLC steal forced by its pressure defense led to a Beasley layup, and the Skyhawks took a 59-58 lead with 2:30 to play. Iyekekpolor drew a charging foul to get the Skyhawks the ball back, and Semadeni got a basket to give FLC a 61-58 lead with 2:20 to play.
With FLC up only 62-61, Beasley got an offensive rebound but couldn’t make a put-back layup. Biggs was there to tip Beasley’s miss through the hoop, and FLC led 64-61 with 1:11 to play.
Iyekekpolor played stifling post defense and forced a miss from Demond Parker, and Beasley gathered the rebound to preserve the FLC lead. But the Skyhawks turned the ball over with 24.6 seconds to play, and the Mustangs still had life. Emmanuel McNeil made 1-of-2 free throws with 3.3 seconds to go, as he missed the first and made the second, though he attempted to miss the second in hopes of an offensive rebound.
Semadeni was fouled with 2.3 seconds to go, and he made 1-of-2 free throws to give FLC a 65-62 lead. He missed the second, and the Mustangs quickly got the ball up the floor to John Paul Garcia, who launched a long 3-pointer that looked good out of his hand. The shot rattled in and out, and FLC went on to celebrate its victory. The defense of lengthy freshman Brendan La Rose on the final shot helped make it a more difficult look for Garcia.
Beasley scored 28 points and had 12 rebounds for FLC. He also had four steals and three blocked shots, but he was frustrated with a 4-of-12 performance at the foul line.
“Having a mind-set knowing I’m gonna lead my team as a senior, doing whatever it takes to put them on my back,” Beasley said of his effort. “I know we were having a sluggish night. I had to find a way to keep scoring the ball.
“It’s really me in my head. I gotta gt up there and focus and knock em down,” Beasley added about his free-throw shooting.”
Iyekekpolor finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds. He blocked four shots but also was frustrated with six turnovers. The senior transfer from Division I Central Arkansas made his presence felt, though, and he will be counted on heavily this season with the injury to Farris.
“I just wanted to bring energy, whatever that took,” Iyekekpolor said. “Defensively, we made it hard on them, and that’s how we got back in the game. With Farris out, we lost some scoring, but we were able to overcome that with some structure on offense and defensively getting rebounds, getting stops.”
Semadeni finished with eight points, 11 rebounds and six assists. Biggs had six points and three assists.
“It picks us up as a team,” Beasley said of Semadeni’s play. “As a senior, we always look for that out of him. That’s always a good thing when he’s flying around, catching charges, yelling. That’s the Sem-Dog we want.”
The Mustangs were led by Rontrell Hills’ 14 points. Parker had 12 points and 11 rebounds but turned the ball over five times.
FLC forced 23 turnovers in the win and turned those into 22 points. Second-chance points were key for the Skyhawks on a bad shooting night. FLC had 22 offensive rebounds and 22 second-chance points.
Now, FLC will try to prepare for Haskell Indian Nations University, another NAIA school, in a game to be played at 5 p.m. Wednesday back inside Whalen Gymnasium. The loss of Farris will be heavily on the team’s mind.
“It’s hurricane warning level red is my concern about Farris,” Pietrack said. “The truth is we’re going to be without Farris for an extended time now. We gotta get back to the drawing board. It’s obvious how important Farris is to our scoring attack. We got some practice time right now. Our team will get a lot better from tonight. As a coach look for any positive you can. We’re we good tonight, no. We were poor. But we faced serious adversity and able to fight through it and that will prepare us for league.”