Jerry McBride/Durango Herald
Jerry McBride/Durango Herald
Fort Lewis is back in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Shootout women’s final.
And it took every bit of the 40 minutes Friday for the Skyhawks to be able to exhale.
Lauren Wolfinger’s 3-pointer at the buzzer caromed wide right, and the No. 14 Skyhawks held off UC-Colorado Springs 68-65 in the women’s semifinal Friday at the Colorado State Fair Events Center.
In a seesaw affair befitting of March, second-seeded FLC made just enough plays down the stretch to hold off a No. 6-seeded UCCS team that beat the Skyhawks just three weeks ago.
The biggest play for FLC came in an area the Mountain Lions dominated all night – offensive rebounding. Katerina Garcia missed two free throws with the Skyhawks (24-4) up just 67-65 with 9 seconds left, but senior center Jenna Santistevan wormed her way to the front of the pack, snared the offensive board and was fouled. She made one of two from the line before Wolfinger’s desperation heave went harmlessly wide.
“Biggest play of Jenna’s career,” FLC head coach Mark Kellogg said. “I told her that was the biggest play of her Fort Lewis career.”
The catalysts down the stretch for FLC were Jamie Simmons and Erika Richards, who made just enough clutch buckets to keep Fort Lewis in front. Simmons’ layup with 3:13 left gave the Skyhawks a 61-59 lead, and she followed it with a huge two-handed block.
Stephanie Beeman and Richards, who scored 10 points, then hit four free throws sandwiched around two from UCCS to lead 65-61 with 46 seconds to go.
“We know we have to come off the bench, and it’s not always an easy job, but we’ve gotta have a lot of energy, and I think that’s what both of us brought out (Friday),” Richards said.
The big possession came when Sammi Gentile was called for an intentional foul after knocking over Beeman with 8:04 to go. Beeman hit both free throws, and Simmons tallied on the possession by doing what she does best – going strong to the rim.
FLC hit 12 more free throws than UCCS thanks to that type of aggressiveness.
“Offensively, it was just finding a weakness in their defense and just taking it to them ... We just executed,” Simmons said.
FLC nearly wasn’t in position to creep back into the contest thanks to a cavalcade of negative occurrences:
First it was the NBA-range 3 Ashley Miller banked in at the halftime buzzer to put FLC down 39-32.
Then Garcia picked up her fourth foul with 13:50 to go.
Finally, Mary Rose Paiz suffered a nose injury and left the game, just moments after Garcia picked up her foul. Paiz’s status for tonight’s conference championship is unknown.
Of course, the Skyhawks also were in a precarious position because of an 11-0 first-half run by the Lions and the play of their athletic guards, including Abby Kirchoff, who finished with a game-high 20 points. Miller added 15 and Jessica Brown 13.
“Their guards are probably more athletic than our guards, and it’s probably one of the few teams we play all year that has multiple athletic guards,” Kellogg said.
Simmons, who led the Skyhawks with 14 points, said the problem boiled down to not playing FLC’s brand of basketball. The defense was there late – FLC forced 19 turnovers and forced UCCS (16-13) to dwindle down the shot clock before taking a poor shot multiple times – but the rebounding and early energy wasn’t.
“We weren’t playing like Fort Lewis plays,” she said. “We were giving up too many easy baskets. We weren’t rebounding ... and we were letting them take shots that weren’t contested.”
The contributions of Alex Easterbrook and Dana Schreibvogel helped immensely as well. Easterbrook kept the ship steady while Garcia battled foul trouble, and Schreibvogel scored 10 points.
But, thanks to a defense which held UCCS to 33-percent shooting in the second half, the Skyhawks will play for the RMAC Shootout title for the third consecutive year – this time against No. 4 seed Western State, an upset winner over top-seeded Metro State.