Katrina Chandler is home, and she let everyone know it Friday.
The 2017 Durango High School graduate played two seasons of college basketball at Colorado Mesa University but didn’t get much of a chance to see the floor on the nationally-ranked powerhouse Mavericks squad. She made a transfer back to Durango to play for Fort Lewis College the final two seasons of her NCAA eligibility.
In the season opener Friday against Western New Mexico, Chandler stormed out of the gates and scored eight points in the opening quarter. She finished with a team-high 14 points and had four assists, as she helped her new team to a big 62-59 victory inside Whalen Gymnasium.
It was the first win as head coach for FLC’s Orlando Griego, a 2003 Durango High alum who had been an assistant coach at Durango High when Chandler was a star for the Demons.
“I would go to the end of the Earth with that man,” Chandler said of her head coach. “Having him get that first win, that’s special. I hope I get him a lot more than this first win.”
It was the first of two games this weekend for FLC in the conference challenge against opponents from the Lone Star Conference. Eastern New Mexico, which beat New Mexico Highlands 78-66 earlier Friday, awaits at noon Saturday.
With seven home games to open the season, the Skyhawks (1-0) got off to a strong start in establishing a home court identity in the first season under Griego.
“It’s nice to get win No. 1,” Griego said. “The players all wanted it so bad and worked extremely hard. Credit the girls for grinding it out and finding a way to win.”
Active hands on defense and attacking drives to the basket showed FLC was the more aggressive team for the majority of the game Friday, and FLC won the rebounding battle 47-30 thanks to 19 offensive rebounds compared to only five for the Mustangs.
FLC did it without starting junior forward Jordan Carter, who missed the game with an illness. She was not on the bench for FLC. Aubre Fortner started in her place, but the Skyhawks largely elected to play a small, fast lineup much of the game, with Kayla Herrera-Flores acting as the power forward on the floor.
“(Griego) came in and said he needed me to be one of those people who attacked today,” Chandler said. “Jordan Carter was sick today, and that’s huge scoring we didn’t have. He said, ‘You gotta be that scorer to help pick some of her points up.’”
FLC raced out to a 16-10 lead after one quarter, as Chandler drove to the basket and finished a layup before the quarter expired. The lead grew to as large as 24-12 before the Mustangs cut into the double-digit deficit. A buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Rachel Francisco of Western New Mexico cut the FLC lead to 33-26 at halftime.
FLC building and then losing double-digit leads would be a theme of the day, but Francisco making buzzer-beaters to end the half would not, luckily for the Skyhawks. Down 62-59 with nine seconds to play in the fourth quarter, she had a chance at a game-tying 3, but the shot went long off the back of the rim as time expired to help FLC hold on.
“Every coach wants to be in a good game. It’s nice to come out on top in the end,” Griego said. “Credit to the girls for being resilient and pushing and fighting until the very end. That’s what we tell them in practice, to go until the final whistle blows and the clock reads zero, and that’s what they did.”
At the start of the third quarter, more offensive rebounding and aggressive play from FLC saw the Skyhawks re-establish a double-digit lead at 39-28. Herrera-Flores was all over the floor to get rebounds and draw fouls. She drew two consecutive charges and assisted Chloe Warrington on a 3 that pushed the lead to 42-28. Herrera-Flores then missed a 3 of her own but got her own rebound and followed with a running floater that made it 44-28 with 5:41 to go in the third quarter. That forced a Mustangs timeout.
“The hustle plays are what spark us, get us going, light a fire under us,” Herrera-Flores said. “It gives us that image that the game is in our hands if we just hustle and go get it.”
The Mustangs would cut the FLC lead back to 48-44 with a 16-4 run to close the third quarter. Alicia Mardis, who scored a game-high 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds, closed the quarter with four made free throws after some big shots from Daria Vatrushkina and Alexis Jones paired with FLC turnovers.
Two big buckets from Bailey Osmer to start the fourth quarter for FLC helped the Skyhawks find some offense, but Western New Mexico continued to make big shots with Mardis and a 3 from Paulina Rodriguez followed by a Vatrushkina layup that made FLC’s lead as slim as 52-51 with 8:30 to play.
Baskets from Hanna Valencia, Herrera-Flores and Warrington put FLC back out front 58-51 with 5:30 to go in the game.
Out of the media timeout, Mardis drove strong to the basket for Western New Mexico. FLC redshirt freshman Eve Kulovitz, who played a big role in Carter’s absence, was there for a big blocked shot. On the other end, Sydney Candelaria made two key free throws followed by a beautiful layup to restore the FLC lead to double digits at 62-51 with 3:30 to play.
“Eve really stepped up today,” Herrera-Flores said of her teammate who had four points, five rebounds and two blocked shots. “It’s great to know we have girls we can rely on in those situations.”
The FLC advantage would once again get cut down to 62-59 with 42 seconds to play when Rodriguez drilled another 3 from the wing.
On the other end for FLC, Chandler drove to the basket but had the ball knocked out of her hands and go off her knee to give the Mustangs a chance to tie the game with the shot clock off, but the last-second shot from Francisco had too much muscle on it, as FLC grabbed a rebound and celebrated its first win of the season.
Candelaria started slow shooting for FLC, but she finished with 12 points and eight rebounds. Osmer added eight points and five rebounds for FLC, which had five players with at least five rebounds.
Saturday’s game against Eastern New Mexico will be free admission for fans. FLC will collect donations for the family of former FLC women’s basketball star player as well as assistant coach Mary Rambo, whose 7-month-old son Leland has battled a variety of medical complications. With some added emotional motivation, FLC will be charged up to play for Rambo on the first back-to-back of the season.
“Once the adrenaline starts rolling, it’s easy to forget that you have pain or you’re tired,” Herrera-Flores said. “We work all week for these two games. We’re ready.”