Fort Lewis College received the guard play it longed for all season in a breakout performance from junior college transfer A.J. Sparks.
The 5-foot-10 point guard from Texas, who has been limited by a back injury all season, came off the bench and scored 21 points to lead the Skyhawks to their first win of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference schedule, 73-61 at Colorado State University-Pueblo. Sparks entered the game having averaged only three points per game this season.
“It was really special,” Sparks said of his performance. “My teammates have had my back all year through my situation. The whole team played a big role tonight to get this victory.”
FLC (5-3, 1-2 RMAC) was already without junior forward Riley Farris because of a shoulder injury, and Sparks was a game-time decision with his back injury after he missed Friday’s 35-point road loss at New Mexico Highlands. FLC desperately needed someone to step up with All-RMAC senior forward Marquel Beasley out of the game for all but seven minutes because of foul trouble. Sparks and Will Wittman, a sophomore transfer from Otero Junior College, gave the Skyhawks what they needed.
Sparks’ 21 points came on 6-of-9 shooting and 7-of-8 at the foul line. He also had four rebounds and two assists and was plus-21 on the floor. Wittman added 11 points in 27 minutes of action. He was 4-of-6 shooting, made 2-of-3 from 3-point range and added three rebounds and two steals. He was plus-15 on the floor.
“We needed to have a program win, and it really didn’t matter how it got done or who got it done,” said FLC head coach Bob Pietrack. “I’m proud of the guys for being tough enough to bounce back from (Friday) night and sticking together, being a real team. Different guys had to step up. Sparks couldn’t play the night before with back spasms, and Wittman and Kireed Johnson were enormous in our success tonight.”
Sparks and Wittman gave Fort Lewis College, which has been held to 70 points or fewer four times in eight games this year, players who were willing to attack the basket instead of settling for outside shots. The added energy payed off when the team stormed back from a 38-30 second-half deficit to keep the game close throughout before building a double-digit lead late.
Beasley had two fouls in the game’s first 1:49 of play, and he had four fouls only 3:29 into the second half. He eventually fouled out of the game with only two points and zero rebounds.
Alex Semadeni also battled foul trouble all night. He finished with 12 points and a team-high eight rebounds in only 20 minutes of play.
“It’s a confidence builder for us as team that we found a way to win tonight with our best player, Beasley, basically not even there,” Pietrack said. “With no Farris, Semadeni in foul trouble and only seven minutes for Quel, we had to find a way to win a game on the road in the RMAC. It’s a great win for us.”
Redshirt freshman forward Brendan Boatwright played a big role in keeping FLC in the game in the first half, as he had seven points, including a dunk before the halftime buzzer to bring FLC within 34-30.
Johnson got his first start of the season for FLC and scored eight points and had two steals in 36 minutes of action, and Otas Iyekekpolor was tasked with playing tough interior defense all night with Beasley out. Iyekekpolor had eight points, four rebounds and two blocked shots.
FLC received 43 points from its bench, while CSU-Pueblo’s bench scored 27. FLC also had 20 points off 21 CSU-Pueblo turnovers compared to six points for the ThunderWolves on 15 FLC turnovers.
“Kireed played 36 minutes and didn’t turn the ball over,” Pietrack said. “He had a great week, and he can make shots.”
Donovan Oldham scored 19 points and had seven rebounds for the ThunderWolves (2-7, 0-3 RMAC), though he turned the ball over five times. Harvey Barr added 10 points and four rebounds. FLC limited Corey Seng to five points and six rebounds, and the ThunderWolves made only 4-of-16 3-pointers in the game to 8-of-22 for FLC.
After the Skyhawks played their first three conference games on the road, the team will return home for a pair of games Saturday and Sunday against South Dakota School of Mines & Technology and Black Hills State.
“Starting three in a row in conference on the road, it’s worse than brutal,” Pietrack said. “It’s very difficult, especially with a brand new team and playing without Farris. We easily could have won two of them, should have won two of them.
“We’re coming home to play two really good teams that are playing well. We have to play our best.”