Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind

Skyhawks’ men’s basketball season ends on its fifth loss this season by five points or less

Matt Billups scored a team-high 20 points in his final game at Fort Lewis College. Colorado Mesa, the No. 7 seed at the RMAC Shootout, beat No. 6 FLC 68-65 on a late 3. Enlarge photo

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

Matt Billups scored a team-high 20 points in his final game at Fort Lewis College. Colorado Mesa, the No. 7 seed at the RMAC Shootout, beat No. 6 FLC 68-65 on a late 3.

PUEBLO – Close games haven’t been kind to the Fort Lewis College men’s basketball team this season.

FLC finally appeared to have shaken that trend with an overtime win over Adams State on Tuesday. Unfortunately for the Skyhawks, their old friend reared its ugly head again Friday.

Mike Melillo’s 3-pointer with 4 seconds left pushed Colorado Mesa to a 65-62 win over the Skyhawks in semifinal action at the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Shootout on Friday at the Colorado State Fair Events Center.

The loss was the fifth by five points or fewer suffered by the Skyhawks this year, and it likely stung the most. It ended FLC’s chances of making a run to the NCAA Tournament and brought to a close the careers of Matt Morris, Matt Billups, Josh Cassaday and Louie Labate.

Big plays by Billups and Morris put the Skyhawks in position to potentially take the lead late, none bigger than Billups’ 3 to tie the game at 62 with 1:16 to go. FLC had a chance to take the lead, but Mike Matthews’ runner came up just short with 21 seconds left, and Mesa grabbed the rebound and called timeout.

After passing around the perimeter against a stingy FLC defense, the ball found its way to Melillo, who calmly buried the 3 from the right elbow with a hand in his face to keep Mesa’s NCAA Tournament hopes alive.

“I was just supposed to make a read coming off a ball screen and just try to make a play,” Melillo said. “That’s probably about the fifth time I’ve had to make that play this year, and I feel like I failed my teammates the first several times.”

Morris, playing with a stress fracture in his foot, capped an impressive season with another double-double, scoring 17 and pulling in 12 rebounds. Billups had a game-high 20, and Matthews chipped in 16 – 11 in a stellar first half.

Nate Nelson and Colton Burgon had 14 apiece for Colorado Mesa, which also got 10 from Michael Bear, who was hampered by an ankle injury.

The Mavericks claimed their first lead of the game at 42-41 with 15:47 to go in the game. Fort Lewis tried to regain it but never could, pulling even at 58 on a Billups jumper and again at 62.

Colorado Mesa (16-12) was able to pull ahead by finally getting its interior game going, oddly enough by going small. Using a bit of a shiftier lineup, the Mavericks were able to drive and find seams in the lane that were sealed for the first 15 minutes of the game.

“It’s a game of adjustments. We adjust; they adjust. We adjust; they adjust,” FLC head coach Bob Hofman said. “That’s what our rivalry is. You contain; you do the best you can, and they make adjustments.”

The Mavericks had some close-game woes of their own this season, losing five games by four points or less. But coupled with an overtime win over Metro State on Tuesday, they’ve won the two most important tight tussles of their season to set up a showdown today with No. 2-ranked Colorado Mines for the Shootout crown and an NCAA Tournament bid.

“Well, we lost, jeez what was it, three or four one- or two-point games. ... I’m just a firm believer that you’ve got to be in those situations,” Colorado Mesa head coach Jim Heaps said.

FLC (16-12) was able to build an 11-point lead, 30-19, in the first half behind the strong scoring of Morris, Billups and Matthews. Colorado Mesa answered, however, with a 13-2 run late in the half to tie the game at 34 before two Billups free throws put FLC up 36-34 at intermission.

As CMU looks toward capping a magical run, Billups, a three-year starter, and Morris, a two-year starter, along with the other two seniors, look toward the future. Despite the red eyes, Morris reflected fondly on a well-decorated career.

“To be a little bit more part of that concrete now, that tradition, to make it keep rising and building, it’s a great thing,” Morris said.

rowens@durangoherald.com