It was heartbreak Friday night. It was all heart Saturday.
Less than 24 hours after the Fort Lewis College men’s basketball team fell in overtime to sixth-ranked Colorado Mesa University, the Skyhawks returned to their home court to host another tough challenge from Westminster College.
Without preseason All-American senior forward Riley Farris for a second consecutive night and on tired legs from a battle with the Mavericks, the Skyhawks went down 28-18 in the first half. But FLC refused to go away.
Behind strong 3-point shooting all night and the leadership of junior guard Cesar Molina, the Skyhawks closed out an 81-78 win in the final minute Saturday inside Whalen Gymnasium in Durango.
“Our team really needed that win. That’s the best way to put it,” FLC head coach Bob Pietrack said. “Our backs were firmly against the wall. The way we had lost the two games since Christmas break - even the game before Christmas break - those are gut-wrenching losses. Just extremely proud of our program to be able to come back tonight after last night’s game. It took a lot out of us - coaches, players - it takes a lot out of you when you play like that and have such high hopes. This is a great win for our team, and hopefully it will springboard us into some more success.”
Down 75-73 after a turnover led to an easy layup for Westminster College (5-6 RMAC), FLC (3-4, 2-4 RMAC) turned to a pair of role players in Molina and junior forward Brendan La Rose. Senior wing Will Wittman had gone down with an ankle injury late in the second half, and that put La Rose on the floor for the final critical stretch.
La Rose would snag a big offensive rebound and get to the foul line and make 1-of-2 to get the Skyhawks within 75-74 with 1 minute, 5 seconds to play. Westminster’s Taylor Miller then attempted a fade-away jump shot from the foul line and came up short to give the Skyhawks the ball with the chance to take the lead.
FLC checked in sophomore guard Akuel Kot and looked to run a play through the offensive weapon, but Molina asked for the ball instead. He was rewarded after scoring 17 points already in the game, and Pietrack called a set to get him a look at a 3-point try. With a defender crashing his way, Molina fired the 3 and was fouled while shooting.
He made all three of his free throws to give FLC a 77-75 lead.
“Very thankful I got fouled. I saw the guy coming at me, so I was going to pump fake. I think I made the right decision,” Molina said. “I’m very thankful coach always tells me a to be a good leader, and I was thankful I was able to show the guys - we work very hard in practice, we focus a lot on free throws. It’s just about being self confident in what you do. We practice free throws every day. There’s no reason to miss free throws.”
The Skyhawks got one more defensive stop, and Molina again was sent to the foul line for two shots with 10 seconds to go. He made both.
Still, after losing so many close games the past two-plus seasons, the Skyhawks couldn’t relax with the four-point lead. Westminster’s Joey Andrews made a miraculous bank-shot 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of the 6-foot-9 La Rose with 1.8 seconds to go.
FLC needed to inbound the ball and found center Brenden Boatwright as the only open option. He would make two free throws to make it 81-78. A desperation catch and heave from Westminster guard Jarrett Jordan would sail over the backboard, and FLC celebrated its biggest win of the season after two previous overtime losses in January and a 79-73 road loss at No. 1 Colorado School of Mines on Dec. 19 in the game before the winter break.
“It means a lot just to taste the success of winning. Because the way the schedule has broken because of COVID, we haven’t had a win in forever because we haven’t played much,” Pietrack said. “Not only have we not had the taste of winning, but we’ve had the taste of gut-wrenching losses. And that sandwich tastes really poor. So, this one is much better.”
Molina’s 22 points came on 6-of-10 shooting, including 4-of-7 from 3-point range. He also added four assists to his 6-of-6 night at the foul line. All of those numbers, as well as his 31 minutes played, were career highs.
“It means a lot to me. Thank God all my teammates put me in position to help them out and make big shots,” Molina said. “These games show character, perseverance. That’s what we’ve been preaching in this program since I’ve been here. Life and this game have ups and downs. You have to get up and do the best you can. I’m very proud of everyone in the program.”
It was a brilliant performance for the former Gatorade Player of the Year out of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Molina had begun to show flashes of his ability through three games during the 2019-20 season, but a broken leg suffered in the Skyhawks’ fourth game would sideline him the rest of the year. Instead of going home during the 2020 summer, he spent his time in Durango rehabbing the injury. He credited the tireless work of team trainer John Jewell for helping him get back on the court.
“It was about a five- to six-month process,” Molina said. “It feels good when you get rewarded when you put a lot of work in. Sometimes you don’t get it as quick as you want, but it’s perseverance.”
La Rose added 13 points and seven rebounds in 16:46 of action. Boatwright finished with 12 points and six rebounds and made one of the game’s crucial plays. He had missed a shot he expected to make on the offensive end of the court, and Westminster got out on the break. But Boatwright, a 6-9, 245-pound center playing in only his second game since Dec. 19 because of an illness, raced down the court to break up a pass that would have led to a sure layup with Westminster already ahead 73-69. FLC got the defensive stop.
The next time down the floor, Boatwright was fouled and made both free throws to get FLC within two points again. After another Boatwright putback attempt wouldn’t go through the hoop, he raced down the floor on defense again to collect a tough rebound and get the ball up the floor for what resulted in a La Rose layup to tie the game at 73-73.
“La Rose really played well that last stretch. Boatwright, too,” Pietrack said. “Those kids are program guys. They’ve been here the whole time, worked for their minutes, and they’ve had a lot of nights where they have left this gym and not played very much. So as a coach, it’s a great feeling to see young men that have stuck it out and done everything right off the court and they get moments where they taste real success on the court. It makes coaching very fun.”
Wittman finished with 13 points before his injury. The Skyhawks expect to be without him and Farris in a road game Wednesday at Adams State University.
FLC senior Corey Seng finished with five points, five rebounds and five assists for FLC and played strong defense all night. He led the team in minutes and helped the Skyhawks dissect a rare zone defense from Westminster that allowed the Skyhawks to get open looks from 3-point range. FLC made the Griffins pay with 7-of-13 shooting from 3 in the first half and 12-of-26 for the game, a mark that once stood at 12-of-22.
“To be completely honest, Westminster had shown zero zone this year. Zero possessions of zone. We were not prepared for that,” Pietrack said. “I credit their staff. We don’t get zoned a lot. It took us by surprise.
“That’s the danger of the zone. ... If you zone and we miss (3-pointers) it’s a genius move. But if you zone and we make them...and tonight we made them and we made just enough to get to our magic number. If you look at over the years, if we’re at 80, we’re tough to beat. When we haven’t won lately, it’s because we’re not at that magic number of 80.”
Andrews led Westminster with 19 points. Reme Torbert finished with 17 points, while Matt Kitzman scored 12. FLC outrebounded the Griffins 30-24, a key stat on a night in which both teams shot incredibly well. The Griffins shot 58.5% overall and 69.6% in the second half. FLC finished at 48.1% for the game.
After playing only three times in January because of COVID-19 issues within the Skyhawks’ program and with opponents, FLC will hope to make up one of those postponed games Wednesday afternoon at Adams State before a Saturday trip to University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Then, the Skyhawks are home for five consecutive games after playing only three home conference games so far this season.
FLC has played six conference games now and need to get to 11 to be eligible for RMAC tournament play. FLC also would have to finish in the top eight in the conference in winning percentage to reach the tournament for the first time since 2018, a year FLC hosted the tournament after winning the regular-season conference title.
“We’ve been (home) forever, we’re ready to get out of here a bit,” Pietrack said. “Normally, the coach wants to practice. We’ve been practicing. I don’t want to practice. I want to play. Thankful it’s Wednesday and know how good Adams State is. They’re having a really good year. Looking at the standings, they came into tonight in third place. Very tough place to play, a place that hasn’t been overly friendly to us, the Griz Den. A good rivalry with Adams, good clean rivalry, look forward to playing it and hope we’re healthy.”