It was a tough finish to an odd year of college basketball for the Skyhawks.
A mathematical equation got the Fort Lewis College men’s basketball team into the eight-team Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tournament as the sixth-seed. Joel Scott and a slew of Black Hills State offensive rebounds kicked the visiting Skyhawks out of the tournament in the quarterfinal round Tuesday night in South Dakota.
FLC played without preseason All-American senior forward Riley Farris, who sustained a head injury in the first half of Saturday’s loss at fifth-ranked Colorado Mesa University, the regular-season RMAC champion.
The Skyhawks had traveled to Westminster College in Salt Lake City last Thursday, beat the Griffins on Friday night to get into the tournament before the drive to Grand Junction for Saturday’s game at the champion Mavericks. FLC then loaded its two vans to return home for one night before a 13-hour drive from Durango to Spearfish, South Dakota.
FLC played well early Tuesday and led by as much as nine in the second half, but Scott took over in the second half and finished with 30 points and 11 rebounds to lead the third-seed Yellow Jackets to a 75-67 win.
“We just didn’t make enough winning plays down the stretch to beat a team like Black Hills State on their home floor and with us a touch shorthanded,” FLC head coach Bob Pietrack said. “We just didn’t get as much of a rhythm in the second half with some missed free throws. It gets hard not having your go-to All-American offensive machine. We’re not used to playing without him, but a lot of our players did step up and make some big shots in the game.”
The Yellow Jackets (11-6) grabbed nine offensive rebounds with a flurry late to outrebounded the Skyhawks 42-31 to punch their ticket to the RMAC semifinals against No. 2 Colorado School of Mines on Friday night in Grand Junction. Mines did not play a quarterfinal game after its opponent, South Dakota Mines, came down with COVID-19 issues.
Tournament host Colorado Mesa will host No. 4 Adams State in the other semifinal.
It was another tough loss for the Skyhawks (7-9), which led in the second half in all but one game during the 2020-21 season. The schedule didn’t work out in FLC’s favor all season, but the toughest strength of schedule in the conference helped the Skyhawks still get into the tournament as the sixth seed.
Without Farris, the Skyhawks looked for someone to step up to replace his RMAC-best 21.8 points per game to go along with team-highs of 7.5 rebounds (second in RMAC), 3.2 assists (sixth in RMAC) and 1.5 steals per game (first in RMAC).
“We only had one shoot-around to prepare without having Farris,” Pietrack said. “It was hard for the guys. It’s hard when you practice one way all season and then you don’t have it. You don’t not have your All-American and think your team is going to be better.”
Junior forward Brenden Boatwright, who played well all year in tandem with Farris as FLC tried to play a big lineup with two 6-foot-9 forwards, finished with 16 points and five rebounds. Will Wittman was the only other FLC player in double-digit scoring, as he finished with 12 points in 23 minutes of action before he fouled out.
Dunnell “Scottie” Stafford finished with seven points for FLC, but he struggled shooting at just 3-of-12. He had four steals and four assists but also had four of the team’s 14 turnovers. Joey Naccarato had a strong game off the bench for the Skyhawks with seven points and a team-best 10 rebounds.
“Joey played so hard and got extended minutes and made the most of them,” Pietrack said. “He brought a lot of energy. He has two more years left and is going to have a lot more good nights like this for our program.”
Scott went 11-of-13 shooting for the Yellow Jackets and absolutely took over the game’s final 10 minutes.
“He’s a outstanding, very strong and fast player,” Pietrack said of Scott. “He’s an all-region type player, and he was at home and very good. It would have been easier for us if we could have tried to get him in foul trouble if we were at full strength, but we weren’t. We thought Boatwright did as good as he could having to play extended minutes without Farris.”
Kevin Senghore-Peterson, who had 11 points in the first half, finished with 16 points for Black Hills. He also had six rebounds. Guard Sindou Cisse gave FLC problems all night with his strong drives to the basket and willingness to rebound. He finished with nine points and eight rebounds with four on each end of the court.
The game was tied at 58-58 with 7:03 to play after Scott had worked to get the Yellow Jackets back to a tie. Boatwright would hit a jumper to give FLC a lead back, but Scott answered with one of his two 3-pointers of the night to give Black Hills a lead for good at 61-60 with 5:31 to play.
FLC struggled mightily at the foul line at only 5-of-13 with several key misses late, though Black Hills wasn’t much better in terms of percentage at 15-of-27. FLC was held below its average of 78.5 points per game as the league’s second-best scoring offense at 78.5 points per game behind only Black Hills State (79.2).
After a tough year in which the Skyhawks struggled to gain rhythm, Pietrack hopes the team can build momentum in the offseason with eyes on a big 2021-22 season. All but senior guard Cesar Molina have committed to return to FLC next year with the extra year of NCAA eligibility granted to athletes this season because of the pandemic. That includes Farris, who will return for a seventh season at FLC after taking two redshirts and the extra waiver.
“This season had so many positives,” Pietrack said. “Our program is heading in the right direction big time, and we are so much better and further along than we were a year ago. Though the COVID season has been challenging and we got the short-end of the stick of it most of the time, we really feel this program is going in the right direction.
“We are very thankful we were able to get games in this year and would like to credit our entire athletic department and President Tom Stritikus for making it possible to battle through COVID and get basketball games in. It was so important for our players to get to play and be out there doing what they love.”