Fort Lewis College hadn’t won a game at the Benhken Field House in Salt Lake City since 2016 going into Friday night’s clash at Westminster College. In ending that four-game losing streak, the Skyhawks picked up perhaps their biggest win in the last three seasons.
The FLC men’s basketball team came out on fire Friday night in Utah. The Skyhawks took a lead as large as 35-15 in the first half and reclaimed a 20-point advantage late in the second on the way to a 75-56 victory.
With the win and the season sweep of Westminster, FLC (7-7, 6-7 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) put itself in position to clinch a spot in next week’s eight-team RMAC tournament based on the NCAA Division II Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). That formula is being used this year to seed teams in the tournament because of the COVID-19 pandemic and vast schedule differences among the 15 teams in the league.
“A week ago tonight, we had a very tough loss against Adams State,” FLC head coach Bob Pietrack said. “We told our guys, listen, it’s playoff basketball from here on out. We beat CSU-Pueblo, we beat Westminster, so we are two games into the playoffs for us now with another one to go (Saturday). We know we have no room for error on this trip.”
The Skyhawks shared the ball beautifully and shot 68% from the field in the first half to build a 42-27 halftime lead. The 6-foot-9 forwards Riley Farris and Brenden Boatwright combined to shoot 8-of-8 in the first half for 20 points.
“We did exactly what we needed to do, and that was to get up early and be able to play both of the bigs and really rebound the ball,” Pietrack said. “In the first few minutes of the game, we were able to establish what we wanted to do down in the paint, shoot very high-efficient shots and make sure we won the rebound war inside.”
The Griffins (8-10, 8-10 RMAC) got as close as eight at 46-38 with 15:30 to go in the game. Boatwright was called for a questionable technical foul after he was hit hard at the basket as he made a layup, and the Griffins were hanging around down 48-39 with some energy on the bench.
But another Boatwright offensive rebound on his own miss and a putback layup through contact followed by a mid-range jumper from Dunnell Stafford restored the FLC lead to double digits for good.
Down the stretch, Akuel Kot hit a big 3-pointer, Brendan La Rose scored on a two-handed alley-oop dunk off an assist from Corey Seng and Tyler Kinghorn converted a traditional three-point play at the foul line.
Then, the Skyhawks let Farris, the preseason All-American senior forward, carry them home with a big 3-pointer and a slew of free throws to secure the win.
“We had let some leads slip away this year,” Pietrack said. “We have had a lead in every game in the second half this year. Every game. We are determined to turn that corner.”
Farris led FLC with 20 points and nine rebounds. Boatwright finished with 15 points, five rebounds and three blocked shots.
Kot added 12 points and made 4-of-8 from 3-point range. Kinghorn also came through with eight points.
“Akuel is a dynamic guard, and we’ve been telling him all week that he has to think of himself as dynamic,” Pietrack said. “He’s very capable, and he’s still growing as just a sophomore. He also guarded outstanding tonight, which is even more important. We were very happy for him.
“Kinghorn also gave us great minutes scoring and rebounding and doing everything.”
Joey Andrews led the Griffins with 14 points, but he was held to 5-of-16 shooting and 1-of-6 from 3-point range. Brayden Johnson finished with 12 points as the only other Griffin in double figures on a night in which FLC finished 58.3% shooting and held Westminster to only 34.5%.
FLC also outrebounded Westminster 36-22 and outscored the Westminster bench 30-10.
“I really felt that was our best defensive game in years as far as complete team effort,” Pietrack said. “The focus and the ability to get them one shot and out, and we really hit the boards hard. We dominated in the paint in every fathomable way.”
The Skyhawks enjoyed playing earlier with a 5:30 p.m. tipoff, as the game time was moved up because there was no women’s game played before. The FLC women’s team is in a COVID-19 quarantine and had to cancel its weekend roadtrip. The early finish allowed the Skyhawks to get on Interstate 70 early for a massive trip to Grand Junction where the Skyhawks will clash with rival Colorado Mesa University at 6 p.m. Saturday.
The fifth-ranked Mavericks (16-1 RMAC) will win the RMAC regular-season championship with a victory after they beat previously top-ranked Colorado School of Mines last weekend. FLC will guarantee itself a spot in the RMAC tournament with a win no matter what happens across the rest of the league.
“We told our guys after this win that it is only halftime of this trip,” Pietrack said. “The only way to guarantee ourselves to get in is to get two wins. We gotta have them both, and that’s the plan.
“Tomorrow night with the Mavs, they want to cut down the RMAC nets. We want to get into the tournament, so let’s go.”