Fort Lewis College showed it will be a contender, but it didn’t have enough to knock off the defending conference tournament champions Friday night.
The young Skyhawks held a 49-39 halftime lead and had held the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference’s leading scorer, Sammy Barnes-Thompkins, to two first-half points. But the New Mexico Highlands guard got red hot in the second half, as he scored 21 second-half points to help the Cowboys to a 98-83 victory.
FLC fell to 6-1 and 0-1 in the RMAC with the loss, while Highlands remained unbeaten at 6-0 and 1-0 in conference.
Raquan Mitchell scored a game-high 29 points for Highlands. He added eight assists and six rebounds.
“They are really good players,” Highlands head coach Mike Dominguez said of his two former Division I guards. “I’m proud that Sammy got a little frustrated there at the start, scored 21 in the second half. What’s good about having two of them, when one is not going, hopefully the other one can kind of carry him until the other one comes along. They aren’t gonna stay down forever.”
FLC junior forward Riley Farris scored 25 points and had five rebounds to lead the Skyhawks. Freshman guard Akuel Kot finished with 19 points, while senior Danny Garrick added 15 points, with 13 in the first half.
FLC shot 58.6% in the first half and made 7-of-14 from 3-point range. Highlands went to a zone defense in the second half and held FLC to 37.8% shooting and 1-of-15 from 3-point range.
“No doubt it hurt us. The zone hurt us,” FLC head coach Bob Pietrack said. “We didn’t execute the way we need to do against the zone and need to do a better job getting the ball inside. We didn’t make any shots, either, the second half. It’s easy to zone somebody when they don’t make anything. Thought we had good, clean looks, just didn’t make any. Thought we made a lot in the first half, didn’t make any in the second half. Tale of two halves.”
It was only a four-point game at 78-74 with 6 minutes, 34 seconds to play. But FLC went cold offensively down the stretch, while Desmond Carpenter and David Hall drilled huge 3-point shots in the game’s closing minutes to help the Cowboys create a lopsided final score. Carpenter finished with 21 points, seven assists and seven rebounds.
“Those guys are good, and Carpenter had a good game, too,” Pietrack said. “We needed to try to only have one of them have a good game, and all three did. We had to do some gambling at the end there a bit that let Carpenter get a bunch of points, as well.”
Friday had the feel of an RMAC tournament game from the start. Barnes-Thompkins, who started at Boston College as a freshman before his path led to Highlands, and Mitchell, a former Colorado State player, glided down the floor and played at an elite level that showed their Division I talent.
“I know they are really young, and we have Raquan and Desmond who have played last year for us and the run we made. Sammy played at Boston College and Odessa, so this isn’t something he’s gonna be nervous about. Guys who have experienced it before, they stayed the course and didn’t panic when we got down 10.
“Road wins are so hard, and they are well coached and always gonna be up there. For us to win and do what we did here at Fort Lewis, they are gonna win a lot of games here, so for us to win one here where other teams are going to lose, it’s big for us.”
With only one senior on the team, FLC countered every punch and erased an eight-point Highlands lead to take the 10-point lead at halftime.
But the Skyhawks were outscored 59-34 in the second half. The up-and-down pace of the game didn’t suit FLC’s post players. FLC did benefit from the presence of point guard Logan Hokanson, who scored eight first-half points and dished out a team-high seven assists. Hokanson played through a wrist injury to give FLC a lift and help the Skyhawks break the press defense of the Cowboys.
Though the Skyhawks faltered in the conference opener, Pietrack said the team was in positive spirits in the locker room after the loss and will be ready to rebound at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against CSU-Pueblo (2-4, 1-0 RMAC). The ThunderWolves beat Adams State 72-60 on Friday night in Alamosa.
“I was really proud of our team,” Pietrack said. “We’re nursing some injuries and trying to find ourself, but we’re very young. I think that got lost in our start a little bit. We like our team a lot, think we’re gonna keep getting better. Win or lose in this league, you must immediately get ready for the next game, so no time to pout, just gotta get back at it and get ready for a very good Pueblo team. The Saturday nights in this league are really hard. Hopefully, we’ll be hungry to play. We have to do a lot better than we did tonight defensively. We are playing a very capable, good team. All these teams in the RMAC are very good.”