Skyhawks deliver Pietrack’s first

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald photos

Fort Lewis College interim head coach Bob Pietrack is 1-for-1 so far as a head coach, helping the Skyhawks to a commanding 81-60 victory over New Mexico Highlands.

By Ryan Owens Herald staff writer

No late-game heroics needed. Just a plus defensive performance this time around.

And an easy victory for interim head coach Bob Pietrack in his first game at the helm.

The No. 25 Fort Lewis College men’s basketball team acquitted itself well without head coach Bob Hofman, who’s out on medical leave, pressuring New Mexico Highlands and knocking down a bevy of quality looks for an 81-60 victory Friday at Whalen Gymnasium.

Pietrack looked right at home in the driver’s seat, providing a consistent voice and pushing the right buttons after spending the last eight-plus years as Hofman’s right-hand man, and the Skyhawks didn’t miss a beat, leading by as many as 29 points in the second half.

“I haven’t had a chance to think about it, to be honest,” Pietrack said.

“I felt pretty comfortable. We had developed over the past 10 games a clear blueprint of what we’re trying to do and stuff like that. I felt comfortable with that. Coach (Daniel) Steffensen did a great job helping me. Smooth sailing.”

Alex Herrera had yet another double-double in what’s quickly becoming a long list of such feats with 17 points and 13 rebounds in just 21 minutes, and Nick Tomsick poured in 15 of his own to pace FLC.

Tomsick said that adjusting to Pietrack being in charge instead of Hofman for the time being didn’t take much, and the Skyhawks’ showing Friday night backed his claim emphatically.

“Nothing has changed at all,” Tomsick said.

“(The coaching staff) kept the same thing going as before, and we were really energized to come out and play.”

The defensive performance was top-notch for the Skyhawks, who allowed the Cowboys to shoot just 29 percent from the field Friday in moving to 10-1 and 7-1 in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

That defense allowed Fort Lewis to turn a 15-all tie in the first half to a 35-17 lead thanks to a 20-2 run and a Highlands’ field-goal drought of nearly 9 minutes en route to a 40-24 halftime advantage.

Highlands (5-8, 3-6 RMAC) had just six assists against 14 turnovers on 20 made field goals.

“We didn’t guard as well at Black Hills State as we’d wanted to, and we wanted to make it a focus all week,” Pietrack said.

“We’ve been talking about just trying to extend and play a little bit more in the lanes, and we were able to do that (Friday). You never know about shot-making. Sometimes they go in; sometimes they don’t.”

The Skyhawks, meanwhile, were a benchmark for offensive consistency.

They shot 50 percent in each half, totaling the same for the game, and they had three players in double figures – Marcus Ayala was the other with 14 – and Mike Matthews and Matthias Weissl had nine points apiece.

A big reason was the aggressiveness of FLC’s guards, who had no problem driving to the basket and mixing it up with an athletic Highlands squad, and Matt Mazarei, tops in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, had five dimes against no turnovers.

“We knew they were going to come out and pressure the ball really hard, and they’re long and athletic, so the ball fake was really big (Friday),” Tomsick said. “When they’re out pressuring us, being able to use our dribble and go by them really kept them honest.”

And the Skyhawks’ bigs were up to the task down low, with Torrey Udall chipping in four assists and nine rebounds as Fort Lewis led in the rebounding category 41-36.

Only 10 of New Mexico Highlands’ 36 rebounds game on the defensive end of the floor, and the Cowboys mustered a decent chunk of their offensive rebounds in the second half after Fort Lewis had build a commanding lead.

“I was happy with the way Chief (Herrera) and Udall rebounded,” Pietrack said.

Only the 19 turnovers soured the Skyhawks’ big night.

Highlands, meanwhile, had four different players in double figures, led by Mannie Cass’ 14 points and 13 from Lavell McDade.

The Skyhawks also were adept at the foul line, hitting 22 of 29 free throws while Highlands connected on 14 of 16 from the charity stripe.

Fort Lewis will look to win its sixth in a row and second under Pietrack at 7:30 p.m. today when Western New Mexico comes calling at Whalen Gymnasium.

“Got to clean up some turnovers. ... But, big game (tonight),” Pietrack said.

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