Out of Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tournament contention for the last month, Fort Lewis College men’s basketball head coach Bob Pietrack said his team would play for special moments, honor its three seniors and have fun while competing. The Skyhawks had one of those nights Friday in Grand Junction.
Against rival Colorado Mesa University, FLC’s three seniors, Marquel Beasley, Otas Iyekekpolor and Alex Semadeni, combined for 56 points to lead the ’Hawks past the Mavericks 85-68. It was the sixth consecutive FLC win against the Mavericks and a highlight of a tough season after FLC won two of the previous three RMAC championships.
“What a great program win for us,” Pietrack said. “I’m so proud of our program for being tough enough to get here through bad weather, ignore the fact that people think we’re playing for nothing. We’re playing for more than we’ve ever played for. We have such pride in our program and each other. We’re playing for a lot. People say we’re not playing for nothing, but they’ve never been part of a program like ours.”
Iyekekpolor, a senior transfer from Division I Central Arkansas, had his best game in an FLC uniform. He delivered 23 points and 12 rebounds and helped the Skyhawks (12-14, 7-13 RMAC) turn a 42-35 halftime lead into a 61-48 advantage with 12 minutes, 34 seconds to play.
“When you’re a senior playing in the twilight of your career, you hope to finish on a strong note,” Pietrack said. “Otas was worth his weight in gold tonight. It couldn’t happen to a better guy. He works his tail off in practice. He’s always engaged in the game. To have a game like that at Mesa for a one-year guy, he’s now forever a ’Hawk.”
The FLC lead would grow to as large as 21 points at 71-50 with 8:53 to go before the Mavericks (17-9, 12-8 RMAC) threatened to make a run and got within 74-60 with 4:10 to play. The Skyhawks maintained a double-digit lead the rest of the way, though, as Beasley got hot and finished with 18 points and five rebounds, while Semadeni had 15.
“(Beasley) is a thoroughbred. We needed him to finish the race, and he bolted,” Pietrack said. “We’re gonna really miss Quel. As a coaching staff, we will enjoy the last 80 minutes we have with him.”
FLC completed a season sweep of the Mavericks with the win and put the regional tournament hopes of Mesa in peril.
A.J. Sparks added 10 points for the Skyhawks, as he scored all 10 in the first half. The junior point guard also had five assists. Kireed Johnson added eight points.
Connor Nichols led the Mavericks with 16 points, while Damon Dubots scored 12 in only 18 minutes of play, as he battled foul trouble. He was 5-of-6 shooting.
FLC outrebounded the Mavericks 17-12 in the first half and 37-20 in the game.
The Skyhawks also shot 57.4 percent from the field to Mesa’s 44.6 percent. The Skyhawks made 8-of-18 3-point attempts and went 15-of-16 at the foul line, two areas that have cost FLC in games this season. Those numbers helped FLC overcome 17 turnovers.
“We’ve had some free-throw woes throughout the season,” Pietrack said. “When you make shots, you get energy. We were making shots, making free throws. When you have a night like that, you have energy.”
Now, the Skyhawks will try to keep it going on the road at Western Colorado University at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Gunnison.
“These last two weeks are totally about our seniors,” Pietrack said. “They’ve been great for us. We want to play good. I’ve told everybody, we can still be a good team. We haven’t had a lot of things go our way this year. Tonight, we were a good team.”