As least for one night, the dunk was once again mightier than the 3-point shot in a basketball game.
Fort Lewis College withstood the red-hot 3-point shooting for Westminster College and secured a 74-67 home win Friday night inside Whalen Gymnasium in Durango.
“We’ve been talking about throwing it into the post every day for weeks and weeks and weeks,” FLC head coach Bob Pietrack said. “That’s our ticket to winning right now because we’re not a good 3-point shooting team. After this many games into the season, you figure out what you are. We’re a throw-it-inside, get to the free-throw line type of team. It won us the game tonight. We shot a high percentage. Not a lot of possessions, but we shot a very high percentage.
“If we just made our free throws, I think we could have really gapped them in the second half,” Pietrack continued, referencing his team’s 18-of-32 performance at the foul line.
FLC (11-13, 6-12 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) erased a 37-30 halftime deficit in a flash with a 9-2 run to start the second half. An alley-oop dunk thrown up by A.J. Sparks and finished by Marquel Beasley sparked the run. Sparks then made a tough jump shot, and Will Wittman added a 3-point basket, and suddenly, the game was tied at 39-39.
Beasley finished with 16 points and five rebounds with multiple dunks.
“It’s a ton of fun and brings energy,” Beasley said of the dunks. “We had a slow start in the first half. Dunks picked us up and led us through.”
The Griffins (9-13, 7-11 RMAC), who at one time had an 11-point lead of their own, cut an 11-point FLC lead to 62-57 with 4 minutes, 53 seconds to play. Wittman answered with a strong drive to the basket, and Brendan Boatwright finished a tough layup while he was taken to the floor. He made a free throw to complete the three-point play, and FLC’s lead was back to 67-59 with 4:02 to play.
Pietrack rode a seven-man rotation hard the entire game. It was the big men of Beasley, Boatwright and Otas Iyekekpolor who secured the win down the stretch.
Iyekekpolor scored 14 points. After a tough runner followed by a big Beasley offensive rebound and put-back bucket, Iyekekpolor was called for a double-dribble that looked like it could be costly in a 71-66 game, but he immediately got a steal and ran down the floor for a dunk to pad the lead to 73-66 with a little more than a minute to play.
“It’s good when you play hard and do the right things, you get stuff like that sometimes,” Iyekekpolor said. “Coach was saying, ‘Guard, guard. Play deny.’ I saw it, went for it, got it and was able to finish it.”
Sparks had perhaps his best game of the season with 12 points, five assists and three steals in 28 minutes. In the last three games, he has looked like a different player than the one who battled a back injury much of the season. And nobody was happier to see all the dunks than the 5-foot-10 point guard.
“This is the best I felt probably all year, honestly,” Sparks said. “I ain’t been feeling too well all season, but it’s pretty good right now.”
Westminster made 7-of-10 shots from behind the 3-point line in the first half and was 9-of-14 early in the second half before it finished 10-of-20 for the game. Jake Connor scored a game-high 17 points with three made 3s, and Brandon Warr added 16 points, six rebounds and four assists with three made 3s of his own. But it was a Warr technical for slamming the ball halfway into the second half that helped FLC build a cushion.
The Skyhawks’ defense was much better in the second half and forced 17 turnovers in the game.
“I thought we flat-out out-played them in the second half,” Pietrack said. “We just had to turn up our energy. We wanted them to feel us. Sometimes when you’re playing on offense, if you don’t feel the defender, you can get really comfortable. We needed to make them feel us. I think the second half, they felt us. The turnovers, I think that was a direct relation to our pressure as far as making them uncomfortable offensively.”
FLC struggled to begin the game, but a pair of Beasley dunks and Alex Semadeni 3-pointers helped the team find a rhythm. Semadeni finished with seven points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals without a turnover.
“I was feeling it,” he said. “I don’t think I missed a shot during warm-ups. I felt really confident just trying to get ’em up. Both of my shots were assisted, and I think that’s when we play our best basketball. If we get the ball moving, get an assist, we’re pretty hard to stop offensively.”
Now, the Skyhawks will prepare to play Dixie State (14-8, 12-6 RMAC) at 7:30 p.m., which has won nine consecutive games to move into third place in the conference standings. Only first-place Colorado School of Mines (21-3, 18-0 RMAC) has won more consecutive games.
Tickets to Saturday night’s game cost only a donation to the family of FLC women’s basketball assistant coach Orlando Griego to help with medical expenses for his daughter, Lana, who fought for her life after being delivered nine weeks early.
“We’re playing a team that’s won nine in a row,” Pietrack said. “Aside from Mines, maybe the hottest team in the West. Great. Let’s play. We got no pressure on us. We’re just playing for the joy of it, the love of competition and the love of our team.
“We’re very excited for the night tomorrow. The Griego family, Orlando, Katherine and Lana. We’re looking for great community support. We didn’t have that tonight, but I think a lot of that had to do with the weather and the fact that it’s such a big night tomorrow. The ’Hawks will be ready to play.”