Steve Lewis/Durango Herald
Winning is for closers.
And late into Friday’s contest, which team would seize that mantle was in doubt heading into the final four minutes of the game.
Then Fort Lewis College stepped on the gas and emphatically shut the door on CSU-Pueblo.
The 22nd-ranked FLC men’s basketball team allowed just a pair of fairly meaningless field goals in the final 4 minutes, 36 seconds of the game and closed on a 14-5 run to put away the hot-shooting ThunderWolves 80-72 on Friday at Whalen Gymnasium.
But, before the decisive outburst, FLC first had to battle back from a 52-43 hole with 13:16 to play, and the momentum seemed to turn in a tangible, tactile way on one key play.
Down 55-49 with 12:50 to go moments after he hit a key 3-pointer, FLC’s Jared Smith forced a loose ball, dived on the floor after it and shoveled it to Marcus Ayala, who layed it in and brought the crowd to a frenzy.
“I saw it out of the corner of my eye. It was a 50-50 ball, and coach always says intensity, loose balls, we should always get those 50-50 balls,” Smith said. “In the back of my mind I told myself to dive for it, go find it, find the first person that was up.”
“I thought that play made our whole team more enthusiastic,” FLC head coach Bob Hofman said.
It began an 11-0 run that saw FLC (16-4, 13-4 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) take its first lead in some time at 57-55.
The lead would see-saw back and forth from there with CSU-Pueblo (10-13, 9-8 RMAC) using three of its 15 3-pointers to eventually pull ahead 67-66 with 4:36 to go, helping hold off several key buckets by Ayala, who had 19 points and seemed in the right place at the right time several times as FLC clawed back.
“You’ve got to give credit to the person on the ground. ... If he’s down on the floor, I’m going to dive with him and try to get as close to the ball as I can,” Ayala said.
And that’s where the Skyhawks decided they’d had enough. Alex Herrera scored five consecutive points as part of a 16-point, nine-rebound effort to push the lead to 71-67, and free throws won the day from there for FLC.
The Skyhawks came out flat early and to start the second half, allowing CSU-Pueblo to build a nine-point edge behind the hot touch of Matt Rosenbaum, who hit seven 3s and scored 26 points, forcing the big-blocking Herrera to leave the paint to guard him.
“They had an incredible shooting night,” Hofman said. “Really I talked about it’s hard to stay enthusiastic when they’re shooting like that. Rosenbaum made seven 3s, and he’s their center.”
Torrey Udall returned to the starting lineup after leaving last Saturday’s game with a knee injury and played 11 minutes, getting spelled briefly by Kody Salcido, who had a nice block, then ran the floor for a layup in the first half. With Udall a bit limited, Herrera played 33 minutes of a possible 40.
Nick Tomsick had 11 points, as did Matt Mazarei for FLC.
Former FLC player Bryse Velasquez had 13 and Wendell Lee 10 for CSU-Pueblo.
The ThunderWolves made their 15 3-pointers on 30 attempts but shot just 11 of 31 from inside the 3-point line.
FLC will return to its home court at 7:30 p.m. today to take on UC-Colorado Springs at Whalen Gymnasium, the second of a four-game homestand for the Skyhawks.
UCCS lost 78-64 to Adams State on Friday night in Alamosa.