Kayla Herrera hadn’t make a shot from the field going into the final six minutes of Friday’s game against an opponent receiving votes in the latest NCAA Division II women’s basketball coaches poll. The two she made won Fort Lewis College the game.
Herrera made a pair of 3-point shots in a one-minute span halfway through the fourth quarter. The junior guard’s big shots paired with a tough drive and finish at the basket for Sydney Candelaria helped FLC erase a 47-44 deficit to take a 52-47 lead. The Skyhawks made key defensive stops in the final 4:22 of play to secure their biggest win of the season, 62-53 at home inside Whalen Gymnasium.
“It was tough going into halftime knowing I wasn’t making easy (shots),” said Herrera, who finished with 10 points after she made the game-clinching free throws. “Like coach always says, ‘Just shoot, be confident.’ When (Alyssa) Yocky passed me that one, I was just like, ‘I’m gonna let it fly.’ It felt good. I didn’t think about it, didn’t hesitate, threw it up. ... The second one, I was wide open. It felt good. I could feel the momentum and energy after those few couple of minutes.”
Westminster College (18-4, 16-2 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) maintained a share of the conference lead with Colorado Mesa University, as the Mavericks (19-3, 16-2 RMAC) fell 61-55 to Colorado Christian on Friday night.
While FLC (10-14, 6-12 RMAC) is not in the conference tournament picture with four games to play, the Skyhawks have played their best basketball against the conference’s top teams this season. After a 69-62 loss at Westminster only 13 days earlier, the Skyhawks were thrilled to close out Friday’s game in front of a standing ovation from the home crowd.
“The energy that was there the last couple of minutes was just phenomenal,” Yocky said. “It’s something we haven’t had all season really. We made a statement showing people we don’t just fold. We’re a strong team and we play together.”
Yocky led FLC with game highs of 17 points and 14 rebounds. As FLC head coach Jason Flores, who was battling a stomach bug, and assistant coach Orlando Griego pleaded for all five players on the floor to rebound, Yocky led by example.
The Skyhawks had a few offensive lulls in the game but had a knack for finishing quarters strong. Yocky made a buzzer-beater at halftime that gave FLC a 29-25 advantage. Another trey from MorningRose Tobey and then a Yocky bucket at the shot-clock buzzer with nine seconds to go in the third quarter gave FLC a 41-38 lead going into the final 10 minutes.
Flores, though sick on the bench, was brought to life by his team’s aggressive play.
“We weren’t ourselves last weekend, so it was just great to see the players come out and kind of get over that and get a little confidence back, not turn down certain shots, certain drives,” Flores said. “When your confidence is rattled like it was last weekend and to come in and play Westminster, which is a great team in first place, to come get a win just speaks volumes.
“I was ready to throw up like eight times, just held it in. Thank God we were winning. It made it better. If it had been last weekend, I might have puked all over the place. But we were a different team, and that made it all better.”
Candelaria came through with plenty of big plays of her own. She finished with nine points, none bigger than her layup with 30.2 seconds to go that gave the Skyhawks a 58-53 lead. She embodied the aggression Flores had called for from his team after a poor offensive weekend led to home losses against Colorado Christian and Regis a week earlier.
“She’s a tough player,” Herrera said of Candelaria. “Sometimes she’s a little harsh on herself. This game, she didn’t stop attacking, found her groove, and she’s just gonna keep growing.”
FLC held Denise Gonzalez, the RMAC Preseason Player of the Year, to only five points and four rebounds. Olivia Elliss led the Griffins with 16 points, eight rebounds, and Westminster head coach Shelley Jarrard thought her team didn’t go inside to Elliss often enough in the game’s final minutes.
“They did a really good job making us take out-of-rhythm shots,” Jarrard said. “We settled for too many 3s. We settled for outside looks, out of rhythm, too early. That was the biggest thing that happened to us. We were scoring inside with Elliss. We needed to keep going to that.
“We weren’t our best. There were a million travel calls. Either we weren’t focused or all of a sudden we traveled a ton. A lot of weird turnovers, and they got too many possessions, and we shot the ball atrociously.”
Hunter Krebs added nine points for Westminster. The Skyhawks received another eight points from Aubre Forter.
Now, FLC will look for a season sweep of Dixie State at 5:30 p.m. Saturday in a benefit game for coach Griego and his family. Griego’s wife, Katherine, gave birth to their daughter Lana on Dec. 16, nine weeks early. After battling for her life, Lana is now home in Durango, though she won’t be in attendance Saturday night.
Every dollar raised in ticket sales Saturday night will go to the Griego family, who have helped bring perspective and motivation to the Skyhawks during a tough season.
“It’s going toward a great cause,” Herrera said. “Coach always says, ‘We love basketball. We love the game, but there’s things out there greater than basketball.’ What (Griego) and his wife Katherine went through is tremendous. It’s a great opportunity for the community and our team to show support for that family, Lana, her fight. It’s gonna be a great night.”