The play of two true freshman guards was so good Saturday that not even a 42-point effort from David Simental could lead Colorado State University-Pueblo past Fort Lewis College.
In a 51-50 game with less than 16 minutes to play, the Skyhawks went on a 15-0 run behind brilliant play from freshman guard Akuel Kot. He scored 16 points in the second half and three more in overtime. Fellow freshman Junior Garbrah scored 13 points in the game’s final 12 minutes to help the Fort Lewis College men’s basketball team to a big 98-95 overtime win to beat the Simental-led ThunderWolves on Saturday inside Whalen Gymnasium in Durango.
“I am extremely proud of our group,” FLC head coach Bob Pietrack said. “These are the games we lost last year. This was the exact game we lost last year, these type of games. We lost three or four of them. This year, we weren’t going to be denied in there. I really feel we had multiple times we could’ve put it away and we didn’t, and we kept fighting. For that, our staff is really proud of our team.”
Kot finished with a team-high 25 points to go with five assists and five rebounds. He played all but 37 seconds of the game.
“I kept telling myself, ‘Be tough,’” Kot said. “I was just trying to make a play, just try to be aggressive. It’s easy when you got great players around you.”
Simental played all 45 minutes and had four rebounds and zero turnovers to add to his 42 points.
“For me, you have a sense that he’s scoring some points and you’re trying to get him some looks,” said CSU-Pueblo first-year head coach Matt Hammer. “I didn’t realize he ended up with 42 points, but nobody spends more time in the gym than David Simental on our team.”
Riley Farris added 25 points for the Skyhawks. Garbrah finished with 15 points and seven rebounds.
“It took every bit to get this win tonight,” Farris said. “The two freshmen stepped up big time. ... They’re playing so good, so confident. Everybody just came together as a team and made it a goal today to come out strong and finish.”
The Skyhawks (7-1, 1-1 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) trailed 41-40 at halftime, as the ThunderWolves (3-5, 1-1 RMAC) used 19 first-half points from Simental. FLC kept him quiet the first 13 minutes of the second half, but he exploded down the stretch to keep his team in the game.
The ThunderWolves would answer FLC’s 15-0 run with their own 18-4 outburst to get within 70-68 with 7:08 to play. It was a back-and-forth battle from there until the final buzzer in overtime.
“Give them credit, they are a heck of a team,” Hammer said of FLC. “No doubt in my mind, they are one of the top teams in the league.”
FLC had the ball with a one-point lead with 1:07 to go in the second half. Danny Garrick hit a huge 3 from the corner to give FLC an 86-82 advantage with 52.1 seconds to play. But Simental answered right back with a 3 of his own to make it 86-85 FLC with 46.3 seconds to go.
Kot would drive to the rim but couldn’t finish a layup. Wittman was whistled for an over-the-back foul, his fifth foul of the game, to send Donovan Oldham to the foul line with 21.7 seconds to play. Oldham went 1-of-2 to tie the game.
FLC never got off a potential game-winning shot, as Kot was double teamed and couldn’t find Farris with a pass. So, the game went to overtime.
A tough fadeway shot from Kot and 3-pointer from Farris had FLC up 92-89, and Kot would extend the lead to 93-89 with a 1-for-2 trip to the foul line. But a big layup from Brandon McGhee and a Simental 3 kept the ThunderWolves alive down 95-93.
Garbrah would make three free throws in the game’s final 4.8 seconds.
“I just gotta be available and be mentally prepared to step up in times like those,” Garbrah said.
Those free throws held off a pair of free throws made by Simental with 1.5 seconds to go as well as a final-second 75-foot shot from Simental that looked like it had a chance but came up short off the front of the rim to end the game.
Pietrack credited Garbrah for his reliable play.
“All Junior’s done since he’s been here is been clutch,” Pietrack said. “It’s no surprise to us. We’re very comfortable with him. He’s been outstanding.”
The ThunderWolves got 17 points and 10 rebounds from Bryce Sanchious, while Jason Anderson scored 12 points. Tyson Gilbert and McGhee finished with 10 points each, and McGhee had seven rebounds with four on the offensive end.
Will Wittman and Garrick score nine each for FLC, while Brendan Boatwright had eight points in 11:46 of quality time on the floor.
“A guy like (Garrick) who can stretch the floor, that was our biggest thing is we wanted to try to take (Garrick) out of the game,” Hammer said. “For the most part, I think we did a pretty good job. We held him under his season average, which is great, but he hit that big one there late.”
It was the first time FLC had played on back-to-back nights since the opening weekend of the season Nov. 9-10. CSU-Pueblo, on the other hand, had played on back-to-back nights the last two weekends. It was a mighty test for a young FLC team fresh off a tough home loss a night earlier to New Mexico Highlands in a battle of previously unbeaten teams.
Highlands fell 92-86 at Adams State on Saturday night to drop to 7-1 overall and 1-1 in the RMAC.
“There are no bad wins in the RMAC,” Pietrack said. “This league is hard as hell, and these back-end games are hard. That is physically taxing both nights. Our guys showed toughness. I know we coughed up the lead, we also fought back multiple times when we could have folded, and the young men showed toughness, our program showed some toughness and got a win we desperately needed.”
Now, the Skyhawks will get ready to go on the road for the first time all season, as FLC will visit South Dakota Mines (3-6, 0-3 RMAC) and Black Hills State (3-5, 1-2 RMAC) next Friday and Saturday, respectively, in South Dakota.
FLC knows any road win is key in a conference that has already seen all but two teams – Dixie State (8-0, 3-0 RMAC) and Regis (7-1, 2-0 RMAC) – lose a conference game after only the opening weekend of the conference season.
“We’re actually really excited to go on the road at this point,” Pietrack said. “There’s a lot of pressure when you play at home in this league because those games are so valuable. So, no matter how much you try to diffuse the pressure, it’s on you. We’ve been the home team eight straight times in some big games, won seven of the eight of the homestand. So, now let’s go on the road where other teams have all the pressure and see if we can’t just relax and play some really good Fort Lewis basketball.”