Cesar Molina took the court at Whalen Gymnasium wearing his favorite jersey one final time for the Fort Lewis College men’s basketball team. The Skyhawks looked good and played great to send him out in style.
In their Nike N7 turquoise jerseys picked by Molina, a product of Las Cruces, New Mexico, who will graduate with an engineering degree from FLC this year, the Skyhawks recovered from a bit of a slow start and went on a roll to end the first half and tie the game at 47-47. Fort Lewis then took control in the second half to beat CSU-Pueblo 89-77.
“We had great distribution all the way down – balanced scoring and minutes spread out well,” FLC head coach Bob Pietrack said. “We were happy to see that as we enter an enormous week for Fort Lewis College basketball.”
FLC (6-7, 5-7 RMAC) needed the win to keep hopes alive to make the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference’s eight-team tournament. The field will be decided by the NCAA Division II Ratings Percentage Index. FLC finished Saturday in eighth in conference winning percentage but 10th in the overall standings.
Metropolitan State University of Denver has canceled Tuesday’s trip to FLC for COVID-19 concerns. It was the second time the Roadrunners canceled their trip to Durango this year, leaving FLC without five home games amid other complications that have played out with the schedule this season.
The Skyhawks now will face Westminster College on Friday night in Salt Lake City in a massive game for the standings, as Westminster stands at 8-9 in the conference. Then, FLC will clash with No. 7 Colorado Mesa University on Saturday night in Grand Junction. The Mavericks (16-1 RMAC) beat No. 1 Colorado School of Mines (13-1, 12-1 RMAC) on Saturday night to take over first place in the standings.
“We are taking each game this week as a playoff game,” Pietrack said. “I don’t know the RPI numbers and that stuff, but I do know that if you play good basketball, things work out for you. (Associate head coach Daniel) Steffensen and I are focused on our group playing good basketball and understand we need a really good week to extend our basketball season.”
FLC will be the only RMAC team this season to play Mines and Mesa twice each. The Skyhawks will finish with six home games and eight road games. Of FLC’s seven losses, six have come by six points or less with the other being seven points.
“As far as the schedule goes, we know where we’re at. We think we’re a better team than where we’re at, but what you think and what you do are two different things,” Pietrack said. “We have to find a way to overcome it all.”
Saturday’s game for FLC was highlighted by great ball movement. The Skyhawks had 21 assists on 35 shots made and turned it over only nine times. Molina led the way with five assists to go with three rebounds and four points. It was a special senior night for one of the most universally beloved Skyhawks who returned for the 2020-21 season a year after a broken leg ended his season early. With lingering pain and issues from that injury, Molina decided to graduate rather than prolong his career an extra season.
Riley Farris and Brenden Boatwright, FLC’s two 6-foot-9 forwards, each had 16 points. Boatwright added eight rebounds and six assists and even made a corner 3-pointer in the second half to put an exclamation point on the Skyhawks’ win.
Will Wittman added 14 points for FLC with a big second half, while Corey Seng had 11 points and four assists. Dunnell “Scottie” Stafford also finished with 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting, as he has continued to shine in recent games for FLC on offense to go with his standout on-ball defense.
“Dunnell, like any transfer, took a second to get his roots planted. His roots are really planted right now,” Pietrack said. “We have put some stuff in to help him get to his sweet spots on the floor to make shots. He has a great attitude, is a team-first guy, and we are thankful to have him. He’s going to have a great two years here after this.”
Brendan La Rose also was key as the Skyhawks pushed their lead to double digits. In only nine minutes, he had four points, four rebounds and two assists.
“He brought great energy and rebounded the ball and played good post defense,” Pietrack said. “That’s what you need when you’re talking about a full team win. You need everybody, and it takes a bit of everything to get RMAC wins.”
Tyler Kinghorn also had eight points and three rebounds in only 11 minutes for FLC.
Though David Simental scored a game-high 27 points for CSU-Pueblo, the Skyhawks did a strong job defensively on him to close the first half and to start the second. He had scored 14 points in a flash to help the ThunderWolves build an early lead. He got hot late again before fouling out.
“We didn’t get off to a good start on him, but we made an adjustment on our ball-screen coverage and slowed him down quite a bit,” Pietrack said. “But, boy, he’s awfully good. We’ve played him three times, and each time we leave saying he’s a good basketball player.”
Lian Ramiro added 17 points for the ThunderWolves, who were outrebounded 35-22.
FLC shot an outstanding 62.5% for the game and made 6-of-17 from 3-point range to secure the win.
“Anytime you have 21 assists on 35 makes, and those don’t count the free throws, it shows we shared the ball, moved it and got outstanding shots,” Pietrack said. “It was back to the kind of offense we are capable of, and it was nice to see so many guys contributed.”