The odds may never have been stacked higher against the Fort Lewis College men’s basketball team on its home court.
Sixth-ranked Colorado Mesa University (10-0, 10-0 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference), owner of the longest active winning streak in all of NCAA Division II men’s basketball at 13 games going back to the end of the 2019-20 season, will ride into Whalen Gymnasium at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Durango looking for a third consecutive win against the Skyhawks after FLC had won six in a row in the series dating back to 2016.
Fans will not be permitted to the big game because of COVID-19 health guidelines.
“They’re having a special season, 13 straight wins and 10 in a row this year. They’re absolutely rolling,” FLC head coach Bob Pietrack said of the Mavericks. “We’re going to have to find a way to slow them down a touch and put ourselves in a position in the end to have a chance to win the game.
“We know how good Mesa is. Our guys understand who we’re playing, and I’m sure Mesa does, too. COVID-19 has changed so much of the atmosphere this season that some of the rivalry stuff goes out the window. We know we would have had a wonderful crowd and it would have been a scene here with them ranked No. 6, but we are thankful for the opportunity to compete and get out there and go toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the country.”
Colorado Mesa is fresh off an 81-80 overtime win against Regis at home last Saturday, while the Skyhawks haven’t played a game since Jan. 3 because of COVID-19 issues within its own program and amongst its scheduled opponents. FLC has not played a game with its full roster since a 79-73 Dec. 19 loss at No. 1 Colorado School of Mines (8-0, 7-0 RMAC). The Skyhawks won’t have their full roster available Friday night, either.
FLC (2-3, 1-3 RMAC) has played only four conference games all season. No other team in the conference has played fewer than seven. On top of that, Friday’s game will be only FLC’s second conference game at home all season and second overall.
“It’s been an abnormal month for us, but we’ve worked really hard in practice and are thankful to be able to play a ballgame,” Pietrack said. “When you sat as long as we have, you think of it like when you were a little kid and got in trouble and had to sit inside at recess and you look outside and see everyone else playing. We’re awfully tired of that, and we’re excited to get back out to recess.”
Because of the long layoff and roster uncertainty, Pietrack said Friday night’s game will be about adapting on the fly against a Mavericks team that scores 78.2 points per game. FLC has scored 81.4 points per game to rank second in the conference but has allowed opponents 76.2 per game, which is 10th in the 14-team league.
FLC will need more production across the roster behind Riley Farris’ 21.4 points per game, which ranks third in the RMAC. He leads FLC in every major statistical category with averages of seven rebounds, 4.4 assists and two blocks per game, all ranking him in the top-five in the conference. The Skyhawks have three players all averaging better than 10 points per game in guards Dunnell “Scottie” Stafford, Corey Seng and Akuel Kot while senior wing player Will Wittman is also in the mix at 9.8 points per game.
The Skyhawks will look for a big game from forward Brenden Boatwright, who has averaged six points and 2.5 rebounds per game.
“We have worked hard in practice to get everyone integrated, and it’s going to be about trusting the repetitions we’ve had in practice,” Pietrack said. “We want to get back to the level we were playing at before Christmas, so the question is if we can play at the standard we want to play. It’s a challenge because we haven’t played games. You can’t simulate how tough RMAC games are in practice. I don’t know exactly what we will look like, but there can be some advantages in the unknown, as well.”
Colorado Mesa forward Ethan Menzies has averaged 16.7 points and seven rebounds per game while he has shot nearly 60% from the field. FLC will also have to deal with the shooting of Georgie Dancer and Reece Johnson, who have 12.1 and 11.5 points per game.
“We have to be good on their ball screens and figure out a way to slow them down,” Pietrack said. “Menzies is excellent in the post, and Dancer is an all-league guy. They have a ton of good players, and we have to play a great game.”