Everyone in Whalen Gymnasium held their breath as a late free throw attempt by Fort Lewis College guard Nick Tomsick clanked off the back of the rim late in a two-point game.
Skyhawk fans exhaled when the basketball found the bottom of the net, and they rejoiced when Tomsick hit his second of two free throws to give FLC a 94-90 lead with just 23.8 seconds left in a game against the New Mexico Highlands Cowboys. Twelve seconds later, FLC center Alex Herrera put the game away with two more free throws to give the Skyhawks (14-6, 11-5 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) a 96-90 home victory against the Cowboys (10-11, 7-10 RMAC).
“It was a fun game. I would like to give Highlands credit because they played so hard,” FLC assistant coach Bob Pietrack said. “We really had to stay together, and luckily we were good enough to make free throws down the stretch, which was a key component to us being successful.”
FLC led the game 57-44 at halftime after sophomore guard Cade Kloster converted on a four-point play just before the end of the half. But the Cowboys showed no quit in the second half. Led by seniors Mannie Cass and Lavell McDade, Highlands made a comeback.
The Skyhawks shot 39-of-45 from the free throw line, and that proved to be the difference down the stretch.
“We got in the one-and-one pretty early. When my shot wasn’t falling, I was looking to penetrate to get fouled or create for other people,” said Tomsick, who scored 20 points in the win. “The story of the game was (Highlands) shot 48 percent. Us making free throws really helped us close out the game.”
FLC saw its lead diminish minute by minute in the second half. Leading 92-87 with 38 seconds left, FLC guard Mike Matthews was whistled for a foul as Cass took a 3-point shot. Cass made all three free throws to make it 92-90. Tomsick was fouled quickly and sent to the line.
Tomsick’s first free throw hit the back of the rim and shot straight up in the air, but with some help from the rim, the ball fell back in the cylinder. He connected on his second shot to give FLC a big four-point cushion.
On the Cowboys’ next trip down the floor, Jared Smith came up with a big steal for the Skyhawks. He got the ball to Herrera, who was fouled and made two free throws to ice the game.
Herrera scored a team-high 22 points on 4-of-10 shooting and 14-of-15 shooting from the foul line.
“It was tough. I was getting hacked a little bit and fouled a couple of times,” said Herrera, who faced stiff defense under the basket all night. “You just have to stay cool, and I know I have teammates around me that help.”
Herrera finished with nine rebounds and three blocked shots in the win.
FLC also had a big first-half performance from Will Morse, who scored 12 points on 4-of-4 3-point shooting in the first half. Kloster finished with 15 points for FLC, and he made several key hustle plays in the game.
“We call those winning plays in our program,” Pietrack said. “At the 7:50 mark, Cade made one rebound and hustled down and got fouled. I think that was the signature of the game. Those are the plays you have to make.”
McDade scored a game-high 28 points for the Cowboys. Cass scored another 17 points, while Dom Baca and Stargell Love each had 13 points.
“Both McDade and Cass, you are talking about all-league seniors playing in February of their senior year; they are going to play hard every time now,” coach Pietrack said. “We have enjoyed competing against them.”
FLC did suffer one loss Saturday night as key role player Wes McKenzie suffered a hand injury. After the game, Tomsick said he believed McKenzie broke the hand. McKenzie scored eight points before the injury.
FLC finished off the regular-season sweep of Highlands with the victory. The Skyhawks will hit the road for four games, beginning with a trip to CSU-Pueblo on Friday.
“Definitely the biggest part of our schedule is coming up,” Pietrack said. “It starts with Pueblo, who beat us here in our gym.”