A brutally slow start was forgotten when the Fort Lewis College men’s basketball team finally got hot Saturday.
The Skyhawks went the opening 4 minutes, 26 seconds without a point before Will Wittman hit a 3-pointer. Luckily, Embry-Riddle didn’t take advantage, and its lead was only 5-3. The Eagles out of Prescott, Arizona, would take a lead as large as 12-6 behind a strong start from Conner Verdugo, and the Eagles’ lead was 17-16 at the media timeout with 7:54 to play in the first half. That’s when FLC got going.
Danny Garrick hit a pair of big buckets, including a 3 from six feet behind the arch, and Akuel Kot and Cesar Molina combined for 11 points to help give FLC a 41-31 halftime lead. Though FLC would go cold again the final 10 minutes of the game after the wind was taken out of Whalen Gymnasium by a potentially devastating injury to junior point guard Cesar Molina, the Skyhawks did enough to hang on 81-72 and improve to 4-0 this season.
“It took the air out of our team. He’s our emotional captain,” FLC head coach Bob Pietrack said of the Molina lower-leg injury. “We knew it was serious, obviously. With (Logan) Hokanson playing hurt and Cesar leaving the game, we were thin, and we didn’t shoot the ball particularly good or play good, and they played well.
“It’s completely on me to get the team ready to play, and I didn’t do a good enough job to make sure we were ready to play.”
Embry-Riddle (1-3) made life hard for the big men for FLC despite being outsized. Aggressive play in the post and a quality zone defense forced the FLC forwards into some bad shots in the first half, but that wasn’t the case in the second.
Riley Farris opened the half with a blocked shot and started cooking from the field, as he scored 10 points in the opening 4:11 of the second half to extend the FLC lead to 54-38.
Farris finished with a game-high 25 points. He has scored more than 20 points in all four of FLC’s games so far this season.
“I just wanted to pick up the energy,” Farris said. “We came out very flat and underestimated them greatly and almost paid for it dearly.”
Garrick finished with 16 points and had a double-double with 11 rebounds. Kot added 12 points, five rebounds and a team-high four assists.
FLC continued to stretch its lead in the second half but suffered a huge loss. Molina jumped out and stole an Embry-Riddle pass and broke down the floor for a layup. But, as he was about to jump, something went wrong with his left leg. He still made the layup, but he crumpled to the floor in agony. Though he had yet to receive a scan, it was immediately feared Molina had a severe lower left leg injury. He finished with eight points before the injury. Pietrack said it was not an Achilles injury. Molina left the gym in a hard boot and crutches and did not put any weight on his left leg.
“He’s a big part of this team, so it definitely hurt a lot,” Farris said.
The FLC lead would shrink to 67-57 with 7:30 to play, as the Skyhawks’ offense went stagnant. The lead would be cut further to 72-66 with 3:05 to go after FLC had led by 18 with 12:26 to play.
The young Skyhawks looked like a young team as the lead was cut to 72-68. So, FLC went to its lone senior, Garrick, who made a huge 3 with 1:30 to play to give FLC a 75-68 lead.
“That’s my role and what I gotta do,” Garrick said. “I wasn’t hitting much all game and had to nail down that one.
“It was a weird vibe all night. We are a young team, and it’s a lesson that we learned without a loss, so that was a good thing, but it was ugly all around. A win you have to celebrate, though, even if only for a couple of minutes.”
In the final minute, Kot made 3-of-4 free throws to help FLC close out the game. The freshman from Texas continued to impress with another double-digit scoring night, his fourth in as many career games.
It was only an exhibition game for Embry-Riddle. Verdugo led the team with 17 points, nine assists and five rebounds. Gilbert Ibarra finished with 14 points.
“Give them props. That’s a good team that will be really good in their league,” Garrick said. “Tough shooters, tough dudes.”
FLC will have short time to prepare to play University of the Southwest, another NAIA opponent from New Mexico, at 7 p.m. Wednesday at home in Durango.
“There will be some positives from this game. Not all negative,” Pietrack said. “We are not used to getting zoned that much. Zones are effective early in the year, and they are good at it. We just didn’t play well enough to win an RMAC game today. It’s back to the drawing board, and we are to learn while winning.”