FLC rules with an iron fist

This one never really was in doubt.

The Fort Lewis College men’s basketball team stormed to a 16-2 lead to open the game and never let Western State get closer than eight the rest of the way, rolling to a 61-49 win over the Mountaineers on Senior Night on Friday at Whalen Gymnasium.

In a battle for Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Shootout positioning, the Skyhawks used their defense to get the upper hand early and to keep it.

During the game-opening run, Fort Lewis held the Mountaineers without a field goal for nearly eight minutes and got 10 of its first 16 points from seniors Josh Cassaday and Matt Billups – an omen of things to come. Billups led all scorers with 24 points, and Cassaday chipped in 15.

“I think it’s just guys are being aggressive and trying to play hard,” Billups said. “We didn’t have a lot of long practices this week, so we’re kind of fresh, legs are feeling good and stuff like that.”

FLC forced 22 turnovers and held Western State to just 38 percent shooting.

Mountaineers’ leading scorer Charles Joseph, often a tough load to handle at 6-8, 310 pounds, never was a factor, scoring just four points and getting himself into foul trouble.

George Berling was the only Mountaineer in double figures, scoring 11.

“I thought defensively, we did a nice job (Friday),” FLC head coach Bob Hofman said. “That’s a team that’d won five of its last six games, and their only loss had been in overtime at (Colorado) Mesa.”

Up 29-18 at halftime, the Skyhawks got nearly all the offense they’d need in the second half from Billups, who scored 16 in the frame thanks to 4 of 6 shooting from 3, seven during an 8-0 run early in the half.

FLC also got a much-needed boost from Mike Matthews, who was aggressive driving to the basket all night, adding two crowd-pleasing dunks as part of his 10-point effort.

“I thought we got our best minutes of the year from Mike Matthews,” Hofman said. “I thought he was aggressive taking the ball to the basket, and that’s something we need from him.

The performances by Billups and Matthews, along with the 12 points in the first half from Cassaday, were a necessary offensive lift for an FLC team who’s main catalyst, center Matt Morris, is playing with a stress fracture in his right foot. Morris had seven points Friday.

Fort Lewis (14-11, 12-9 RMAC) also tried to get out and run as much as possible, which helped limit the effectiveness of Western State big men Joseph and Kairo Rochford because FLC often could get a good look before Western State could set up its interior defense.

“Their bigs are really big and slow, so we just kind of tried to push the tempo and get into our speed game,” Billups said.

A night after honoring seniors Billups, Cassaday, Morris and Louie Labate, the Skyhawks will look to wrap the regular season with a win tonight against rival Colorado Mesa. And they’ll be looking to improve their RMAC Shootout seeding as much as possible before the tournament kicks off Tuesday.

“It’s big. It’s huge. You always want to go into the tournament with momentum,” Billups said.

rowens@durangoherald.com