The Bandit has made a habit recently of stealing victories from the jaws of defeat.
Perhaps none was bigger than Saturdays theft of a victory at Colorado Mesa, a place the Fort Lewis College mens basketball team hadnt won in six years.
Marcus Ayala, labeled The Bandit by FLC radio announcer Ken Flint, scored 19 of his 22 points in the second half and tallied eight consecutive points for the Skyhawks during a stretch in the final 3 minutes, 18 seconds of the game to give FLC breathing room to hold off the Mavericks 69-59.
The win helped the No. 17 Skyhawks end a brief losing streak that saw them drop from fourth to seventh in the South Central Region rankings and kept Colorado Mesa from creeping up to displace them in that same poll.
Seeing the seniors, Torrey (Udall) and Matthias (Weissl), not having a win there in five years and giving me a big hug after that, was something I enjoyed very much, Ayala said.
The Skyhawks (19-6) have made a habit of pulling out close games more often than not this year, and as of late, Ayala has been one of the biggest catalysts.
It started Jan. 26 in a win over Colorado Mines, tonights opponent in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Shootout quarterfinals at Whalen Gymnasium. Ayala drove the length of the floor, faked to Nick Tomsick a clutch performer in his own right then drew a defender and dished to Alex Herrera for a buzzer-beating dunk in a 71-69 victory.
Then, in a Feb. 22 upset of then-No. 1 and unbeaten Metro State, Ayala scored 17 of his 25 points after halftime and paired with Mike Matthews to make several key layups down the stretch to hold off the Roadrunners.
And then came the effort against Colorado Mesa.
While thats a pretty nice run, FLC head coach Bob Hofman said his senior guard has been clutch late all season long.
Marcus has been sensational down the stretch in most of our wins, Hofman said. Hes a fearless player.
Ayala as a closer is another in a line of players filling key roles for a FLC team with NCAA Tournament aspirations and RMAC Shootout title dreams. The biggest key for the Avondale, Ariz., native is the trust his teammates have in him to make the right play with the game on the line. It could be critical this week, as the Skyhawks seek the tournament crown and an automatic NCAA Tournament berth.
I feel like my teammates have trust in me to go to me at certain points especially when Im on a roll or made a basket or two, I feel they look for me more, Ayala said.
Hofman credited Ayalas competitive drive for his success late in games and overall this season, a year in which the senior is averaging 13.2 points per game. But the FLC head coach also was quick to point out the Skyhawks have as much confidence in each individual player on the floor as they do in Ayala, another reason theyve been successful this season.
I think everybody has confidence in each other. ... I think for our team its just important that everybody play Fort Lewis basketball, Hofman said.