The story was all too familiar to the Fort Lewis College men’s basketball team.
Leading by as much as 11 points in the final 10 minutes against not just a top-10 team in all of NCAA Division II men’s basketball but against top-ranked Colorado School of Mines, the Skyhawks saw the lead slip out of their hands with three critical turnovers in the game’s final three minutes, while a red-hot Brendan Sullivan hit multiple big shots to send the No. 1 Orediggers to a 67-63 win at Whalen Gymnasium on the FLC campus in Durango on Friday night.
“You can’t have turnovers like that against a team of Mines’ caliber,” FLC head coach Bob Pietrack said. “We felt like we really let them off the hook with the turnovers. Of course, they made big shots, and Sullivan made the big 3, but in any sport you have to take care of the ball, and we didn’t do it good enough the last three minutes.”
FLC (5-6, 4-6 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) turned the ball over 13 times in the game, and it led to 14 points for Mines, which also had a 12-3 advantage in fastbreak points. It spoiled a brilliant defensive performance from the Skyhawks, as FLC was the better team all night until Sullivan hit a go-ahead 3-point basket with two minutes to play that put Mines (11-0, 10-0 RMAC) up 62-61.
Sullivan finished with a game-high 23 points on 8-of-15 shooting. He also had eight rebounds and three steals. With eight minutes to play, he was dealing with cramps and a stomach bug. He scored eight of his points in the final four minutes and 14 in the game’s final 11:30 of action.
“Hats off to Fort Lewis, they played really well for most of the game,” said Mines coach Pryor Orser. “It’s one of those where we are fortunate to win. They played really hard, their best defensive game of the year, and they’re a dang good team when they play like that.
“For us, Sully was a monster. He’s a warrior, a great player and is super competitive. He kind of carried us there for awhile. It was the tale of two halves where they dominated us. They were tougher, but we kept fighting and got a couple of breaks.”
With FLC focused on Sullivan, Austin Means got the ball in his hands in the post and used a brilliant spin move to score over the top of FLC senior forward Riley Farris to make it 64-61 Mines with 1:10 to play.
“If you help on Sullivan, that leaves our post player open,” Orser said. “It’s one of those things where if you don’t help, Sullivan maybe gets a deuce on you, and you live with leaving the six-points a game guy open. But Austin, who hadn’t played great most of the game other than defensively, made a couple of big baskets there late.”
Scottie Stafford answered back for FLC with a baseline jump shot one possession after he had a long jump shot barely miss. Down 64-63, Stafford then deflected a Mines pass into the hands of FLC guard Akuel Kot to give the Skyhawks the ball with 40 seconds to play.
FLC tried to run a play into Farris, who scored a team-high 22 points to go with eight rebounds, but a Mines defender crashed into the FLC big man. No foul was called, and instead it was ruled a jump ball as the two players briefly tied up with the ball.
With six seconds on the shot clock and 16 seconds to play in the game, FLC tried to run an inbounds play from under its own basket into either Farris or fellow 6-foot-9 forward Brenden Boatwright. But the play was well defended, and the ball had to be inbounded to senior wing Will Wittman. He looked to drive, but the lane was quickly closed, so he pulled back for a 3-pointer that was too strong off the back iron.
FLC was forced to foul Mines star forward Michael Glen, who made two free throws with 9.2 seconds to play to give Mines a 66-63 lead.
Out of a timeout, Kot raced the ball up the floor, but he turned it over from the right wing with a defender on top of him. Mines got the ball and FLC could do nothing but foul with 1.2 seconds to play having never got a chance at a game-tying shot.
“Akuel is going to be a great player, and we’re going to stick with him,” Pietrack said. “Those moments will turn quickly for him.”
It was another agonizing loss for the Skyhawks after executing a perfect game plan all night. FLC had hoped to hold Mines under 70 points scoring and did just that. Mines didn’t make a basket for the game’s opening five minutes, but FLC could only build a 4-0 lead in that time after multiple missed shots inside the paint. The shots were heavily contested, and FLC couldn’t buy an early foul call to try to stretch the small lead at the free-throw line.
But FLC closed the first half on a 12-0 run, as Farris put an exclamation point on the brilliant first half with a buzzer-beating two-hand dunk through a foul. He made his free throw after Mines had already retreated to its locker room, and FLC led the best team in the country 30-17 at the break.
Like any championship team, the Orediggers kept punching back in the second half. The game was as close as 39-36 before FLC went on another run to reestablish a double-digit lead.
The Skyhawks led for 35 minutes of the game, held Mines to 39.6% shooting from the field while they shot 46% and hung with Mines in every other major statistical category.
But the result was the same as it was on Dec. 19 when FLC was within one point of Mines in the final three minutes before the Orediggers finished the job and earned a 79-73 home win. FLC also felt heartbreak in a two-point home loss to No. 6 Colorado Mesa University two weeks earlier.
“I think our team is close,” Pietrack said. “We’ve had the toughest strength of schedule any team could possibly have. We have to continue to get better, I think our team is getting better and have shown we have gotten better as the year has gone on. We have to find a way to do just a touch better.”
Boatwright finished with 10 points and five rebounds for FLC. Stafford had 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting, and Eric Jamerman shined off the bench with eight points with two big 3-pointers.
Ben Boone had big moments for Mines each time the lead got to double digits for FLC. He finished with 13 points and two key offensive rebounds, while Glen had 11 points for the Orediggers.
“Again, it was Mines-Fort Lewis. For 20 years, they’ve been unbelievable games,” Orser said. “You’re just fortunate to get the win. The game was solid at our place, too. It wasn’t as good defensively at our place, but it was a real good game. It always is when it is Mines-Fort Lewis.”
FLC’s game Saturday against Regis was postponed because of COVID-19 issues on the Rangers team. FLC hopes to host Adams State at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
“They are obviously very good,” Pietrack said of Mines. “We are really proud of our guys effort. We thought we were up for the game, we just were not able to close it out.”