Fort Lewis College led the fifth-ranked NCAA Division II men’s basketball team in the country 21-19 on the road in the first half Saturday night. With a conference championship on the line, the home team came to life.
The Colorado Mesa University Mavericks went on a 12-0 run after the Skyhawks had claimed a brief lead on a 3-point shot from Brendan La Rose. Blaise Threatt heated up from off the bench, the Mavericks made a pair of 3-pointers, and Ethan Menzies performed like an All-Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference player.
After what had been a beautiful opening 10 minutes of basketball from both teams, FLC faded and went down 41-29 at halftime.
The Mavericks (18-1 RMAC) then opened the second half on a 10-2 run to make the lead 20. That was enough for Colorado Mesa to take a comfortable 78-58 victory to secure the regular-season RMAC championship and the right to host next week’s RMAC tournament. It was the Mavericks’ first RMAC regular-season title in 11 years
“Winning feels great, always,” CMU head coach Michael DeGeorge said. “This has been just an incredible group. It’s unexpected the way the season started and with how many young guys we have and dealing with the whole COVID thing. I couldn’t be more pleased with them.”
FLC (7-8, 6-8 RMAC) was left scoreboard watching hoping for a Regis loss at Adams State University for the chance to make the eight-team RMAC tournament, which was seeded by the NCAA Division II Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).
Adams State beat Regis 80-64 to get the Skyhawks into the tournament. Then, Chadron State also fell 76-67 at Colorado Christin to fall to 0-5 on the road this season. Not only did FLC get in, but it jumped as high as the sixth seed and will now travel to face No. 3 Black Hills State on Tuesday in South Dakota.
“We are grateful. We feel we are one of the eight best teams in the RMAC,” FLC head coach Bob Pietrack said. “We didn’t play well tonight at all, but we will get another 40 minutes on Tuesday to show we can play better. Anything can happen in 40 minutes of basketball.
“To be completely honest, we feel we deserve to be in this tournament. We had the highest strength of schedule of any team in the conference and only played six home games all year.”
The first time FLC clashed with the Mavericks this season was a 74-72 home loss in a game in which FLC didn’t have preseason All-American senior forward Riley Farris.
Farris did play for FLC in this meeting between the rival schools. He finished with 20 points but only two rebounds and was hit hard in the head in the first half. Brenden Boatwright, FLC’s other 6-foot-9 forward, finished with 10 points and four rebounds.
But CMU forward Ethan Menzies was the best player on the floor Saturday. He went right at FLC in the paint and finished with 29 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots. Threatt added 13 points.
Pietrack called Menzies exceptional and said the Skyhawks didn’t have an answer for him.
“(Menzies) just keeps getting better with every game,” DeGeorge said. “He’s getting wider and a stronger base and handling contact better the last couple of weeks and taken it to another level.”
FLC was outrebounded 36-26 in the game and went only 22-of-53 shooting from the field and 10-of-16 at the foul line.
Turnovers were an issue all night for FLC, and the Skyhawks’ defense lacked the intensity from a night earlier in a lopsided win at Westminster College. The Mavericks tallied 10 steals to one for FLC.
It was the first time all season FLC has played in front of fans, as CMU has allowed faculty and students to attend games through the pandemic.
“We didn’t play very well. You gotta credit Mesa, they played exceptional,” Pietrack said. “We didn’t play well, and they had energy from their crowd. We were not able to do very much. We missed free throws and missed easier shots we normally make. We couldn’t get any rhythm tonight and they did.”
Mesa was able to fluster the Skyhawks inside while outside shots were not falling. With added pressure in the paint forcing Boatwright and Farris further from the rim, the Mavericks were able to seize control.
“We wanted great ball pressure and denial on all of their bigs and on the perimeter,” DeGeorge said. “We did that and got them out of what they wanted to do. We have the ability to guard athletically at every position, and that allows us to apply great pressure.”
Now, FLC will make the long trip to South Dakota after avoiding facing Colorado Mesa or Colorado School of Mines for a third time this season in the RMAC quarterfinals, though FLC will hope to see one of those teams in Friday’s quarterfinals if it can get past the Yellow Jackets.
“Everybody is 0-0 after tonight’s games. We are going to regroup and be ready to go Tuesday,” Pietrack said. “We are very happy for our team. They have fought so hard, and I am proud of the guys for staying with it during all of the adversity this season. We had a lot of games postponed or canceled, we played some games without all of our guys, and it is no small accomplishment to get through this season and make this conference tournament with how good this league is. We are honored to be in it and have a history of playing well in the tournament. We look forward to building on that.”