In two critical possessions in the final minute of a crucial game, the Fort Lewis College women’s basketball team turned to Sydney Candelaria each time. She delivered.
The first came with 54 seconds to play, as she gave the Skyhawks a 59-57 lead with a layup against the defense of CSU-Pueblo. But the visiting ThunderWolves would come back and take a lead thanks to two offensive rebounds. Sydni Williams made a free throw but missed her second only to see it rebounded by teammate Kansas Watts. Janaiya Davis then fired a shot. It was no good, but Williams was there for another rebound for CSU-Pueblo, and she converted a putback layup to give the visiting team a 60-59 lead with 18 seconds to go in the fourth quarter.
Out of a timeout, as he has done so many times during the last two seasons, FLC head coach Orlando Griego drew up a play for Candelaria, a guard from Albuquerque who celebrated her senior night Saturday inside Whalen Gymnasium on the FLC campus.
Just as she has many times before, Candelaria would get the ball back in her hands to the right of the basket. She got a great screen from freshman Ally Harvey at the top of the arc and drove left toward the basket before letting a shot fly. It was good, and FLC led 61-60 with 13 seconds to play.
CSU-Pueblo would get a few more shots to take the lead back, but a Davis jumper was no good and, after a team rebound by CSU-Pueblo, a 3-pointer from Jalen Long also wouldn’t drop. Alyssa Adams would make two free throws for FLC with one second to play, and Fort Lewis would hang on for a 63-60 victory on Saturday at home inside Whalen Gymnasium.
“We put the ball in Sydney’s hands to go score,” FLC head coach Orlando Griego said. “She is hard to stop. She has a good step-back and is very quick and explosive. We got a great screen to get her downhill for the split second she needed, and Sydney went and made the play.”
FLC (6-9 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) started the game with the four players honored on senior night along with sophomore forward Jordan Vasquez. In a back-and-forth game all night, the Skyhawks had fun playing together, and it showed on the court and the scoreboard.
Vasquez led FLC with 17 points and eight rebounds. Chloe Warrington added 14 points and eight more rebounds. Candelaria finished with 11 points, and Katrina Chandler had 10 points, six rebounds and six assists. FLC shot 46.2% from the field and tallied 15 assists, as senior Bailey Osmer chipped in with four.
“These seniors have all really put in an effort with each other the last two years. We wanted them to go out and enjoy it and have fun,” Griego said. “We wanted them to laugh and smile and point at each other, and we saw that. It was really fun to watch.”
Long led CSU-Pueblo (3-13 RMAC) with 13 points, while Davis, Aubriana Noti and Watts all had 10.
In the end, FLC made the late shots when CSU-Pueblo saw its attempts rim out.
“This team continued fighting, trusted the program and the system we’ve been implementing, and the girls did a great job buying in and having confidence in themselves to win the game,” Griego said.
FLC will play one final home game at 1 p.m. Tuesday against Metro State (10-5, 9-4 RMAC) before a brutal road trip to end the season at Westminster College (10-4 RMAC) and Colorado Mesa University (12-7 RMAC) on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
The Skyhawks are currently in ninth place in the conference standings. The top eight in NCAA Division II RPI will qualify for the conference tournament.
“If this year has taught us anything, it’s how to roll with the punches and know we have to bring our best when our best is needed,” Griego said. “We’re OK with that. If we get to play, we will be happy and let the cards fall where they fall. We are pushing to get in the playoffs, but the most important game is the one in front of us. That’s Metro first, a team that has gotten better as the year has gone on. They have to come to Whalen against our team playing good ball right now. We will look to ride that.”