FLC women, you can exhale now

Skyhawks bounce off the bubble and back to Grand Junction

Katerina Garcia and Fort Lewis College fell short Friday in the RMAC Shootout against fourth-ranked and top-seeded Colorado Mesa on the Mavericks’ home court, but they’ll get another shot this Friday. FLC rallied from a 1-5 start to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for a sixth consecutive year, this time as the No. 8 seed against No. 1 Colorado Mesa. Enlarge photo

Dean Humphrey/The Daily Sentinel file photo

Katerina Garcia and Fort Lewis College fell short Friday in the RMAC Shootout against fourth-ranked and top-seeded Colorado Mesa on the Mavericks’ home court, but they’ll get another shot this Friday. FLC rallied from a 1-5 start to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for a sixth consecutive year, this time as the No. 8 seed against No. 1 Colorado Mesa.

The waiting is the hardest part.

At 18-10, the Fort Lewis College women’s basketball team had done all it could do. The Skyhawks just had to wait.

And the wait was worth it.

FLC completed its journey back from a 1-5 start to the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, erupting in jubilant cheers that filled Cuckoo’s Chicken House after earning the eighth and final spot in the South Central Region. The Skyhawks will meet top seed and host Colorado Mesa in the first round Friday in Grand Junction.

“It’s big. It’s kind of like a culmination of just a lot of hard work. I think hard work and perseverence are two words that come to mind for that,” said FLC head coach Jason Flores, who piloted the Skyhawks to the tournament in his first year at the helm. “I’m just so happy for the players.”

It’s the sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth for FLC and seventh overall.

It was far from a sure thing heading into the weekend. FLC, ranked eighth in the regional rankings last week, fell to the Mavericks in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Shootout semifinals. Then the Skyhawks exhaled as the Mavericks avoided an upset at the hands of Colorado Christian that would have given the Cougars an automatic berth and all but pushed FLC out of the picture.

West Texas A&M, ranked ninth in the region last week, also tried to swipe the last spot from FLC, going to overtime with Midwestern State in the Lonestar Conference title game. But Midwestern State forced the overtime with a late 3-pointer, then scored at the buzzer in overtime to deny A&M the automatic bid.

In the end, FLC’s 17-5 run to end the year trumped West Texas A&M’s near-miss. Three of the Skyhawks’ losses in that stretch came to Colorado Mesa, ranked fourth nationally. And the Skyhawks downed fellow tournament team Metro State and bubble teams CSU-Pueblo and UC-Colorado Springs in that run to give themselves a boost in quality wins.

“I felt, especially toward the end of the year, there’s no doubt in my mind we were one of the top teams in the region,” Flores said. “I felt us and Mesa were the two best teams in the conference for a period of time down the stretch.”

Now, the Skyhawks have to find a way to scratch their Colorado Mesa itch.

“We’re going to have to figure out a way to overcome that,” Flores said. “Now it’s just a more pressure situation I think for them than for us. And hopefully we take that and go in there and play a great game.”

The FLC-CMU winner will meet the winner of fourth-seeded Abilene Christian and fifth-seeded Texas-Permian Basin in the second round Saturday in Grand Junction. No. 3 seed St. Mary’s will face No. 6 Metro State on Friday, with the winner meeting the winner of No. 2 Tarleton State and No. 7 Midwestern State on Saturday.

The regional title game will take place Monday in Grand Junction. Game times have yet to be set.

rowens@ durangoherald.com