The best players step up in the biggest of moments, on the brightest of stages.
Fort Lewis College had Marcus Ayala, who gave the Skyhawks the lead with a tough reverse layup with 8.9 seconds left.
Unfortunately for FLC, Metro State’s Brandon Jefferson picked Saturday night to shine the brightest on the March stage.
Jefferson hit a fadeaway jumper from the corner with 1 second to go, giving fourth-ranked and No. 1 seed Metro State its 10th Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Shootout title with a 61-60 win over No. 22 FLC in perhaps the best championship game the conference ever has seen.
“They did a lot of things right to win that game (Saturday), and it comes down to players making a play at the end there,” Metro State head coach Derrick Clark said. “And to be honest with you, their best player made a play, and one of our top guys was fortunate to make a play. That’s what championship games are supposed to be about.”
Ayala looked like he may have had the game winner, cutting down the baseline and going under the rim to put the 22nd-ranked and third-seeded Skyhawks (21-7) up 60-59 with 8.9 ticks left on the clock.
“We just called a clear play for me to take it to the basket to maybe get a foul or contact,” Ayala said. “If not, if they pressure me too much, I’m pretty sure it would open up my other teammates.”
But out of a timeout, the Roadrunners (27-2) went the length of the floor as the FLC defense forced Jefferson away from the basket to the right corner. But his high-arcing shot found nothing but net, and Mike Matthews desperation heave went awry, setting off a raucous celebration of fans and players in a corner of the Auraria Event Center.
“Coach always tells me never to gamble, but I gambled (defensively on Ayala),” Jefferson said. “But I made up for it on that shot.”
“It was obviously a tough game to lose, but Jefferson just made a great play, so give him credit. ... It was a terrific shot. ... If we were going to get beat, it was going to be by an outside shot that was off-balance, and Jefferson’s been a clutch player his whole career, and he made a great play,” FLC head coach Bob Hofman said.
The game was a classic in every sense of the word from the opening tip to the final horn. Neither team led by more than five points – FLC led by that margin on two occasions – and nothing resembling a lengthy scoring run ever materialized. It was tight from start to finish.
Neither team turned the ball over much, with the Roadrunners holding a 10-8 edge in forced turnovers. But Metro State was able to turn those turnovers into 14 points, while the Skyhawks managed only four off of Metro State’s miscues.
The game featured a battle of two of the league’s premier big men – RMAC Player of the Year Jonathan Morse and RMAC Defensive Player of the Year Alex Herrera. Both lived up to their billing, with Herrera scoring 10 of his 15 points in the second half to go with 13 rebounds, four assists and a pair of blocks as FLC led 36-28 in points in the paint.
“He’s a big boy,” Morse said. “It was a physical game the entire 40 minutes we were playing.”
Morse, meanwhile, finished with 14 points and nine boards.
“Morse is a great player. He’s the player of the year in the conference. He earned it,” Herrera said.
Foul trouble hampered the Skyhawks a bit in the second half as a team. Their nine team fouls late hampered their ability to get up and guard on the ball as tough as they’d have liked in crunch time, while Metro State’s lack of foul trouble allowed them to take more chances.
And Metro State tried to run out as much as possible to hamper the shot-blocking of Herrera, who played 37 minutes the night before.
Ayala, whose layup at the horn in the first half gave FLC a 32-30 edge, scored 16 points, while Matthews had 11, helping the FLC bench lead Metro State 32-4 in reserve points.
Demetrius Miller scored 12, all in the first half, for the Roadrunners.
The win all but assures Metro State of host duties for the NCAA South Central regional next weekend, the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
FLC, which was ranked second in the most recent regional poll, may well hold their ground when the field is released.
FLC’s two losses to Metro State this year came by a combined seven points, while its victory was by seven points. But the ability to play the Roadrunners tough isn’t going to be at the forefront of Hofman’s mind once the NCAA Tournament begins, because FLC likely won’t meet them until at least the second round if not the Sweet 16.
“We’re not going to play them in the first round, so we won’t really think about it or dwell on it. I think they’re a championship progam; I think we’re a championship program. Hats off to them. They earned it,” Hofman said.
Herrera, Ayala, Miller and Morse were named to the all-tournament team, while Jefferson was named most valuable player. Kaimyn Pruitt of Adams State earned the other all-tournament selection.