When the 2016-17 men’s basketball schedule first came out, the Fort Lewis players looked at it and circled the game on Feb. 17.
It will be the first time Fort Lewis takes on rival Colorado School of Mines since the thrilling conclusion of the championship game in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Tournament. In that game, Joshua Blaylock stepped to the free throw line with .7 seconds left and drained two free throws to lift Fort Lewis to a 73-72 victory.
“We have been focused for every single game, but this one we know there are no excuses,” said junior forward Rasmus Bach. “We can’t let this one slip. When we beat them last year in the tournament, they are going to come and really want this game.”
Unlike last year when the two teams met twice in the regular season, the only time Fort Lewis plays Colorado Mines this season is 7:30 p.m. MT Friday. FLC Whalen Gymnasium at Fort Lewis should be rocking. The game will be televised on American Sports Network.
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“Somebody did their homework,” said Fort Lewis coach Bob Pietrack. “They are two great programs with great kids on both sides that are playing Division II college basketball who are going to graduate. It is a game that is worthy of being on television. I think the product will be enjoyable to watch.”
Indeed. It doesn’t get much better for a late-season game. Fort Lewis, ranked No. 11 in the NBAC top 25, is on a 10-game winning streak. The Skyhawks are 22-3 overall and 17-2 and in first place in the RMAC. Colorado Mines, ranked 22, is 20-4 and 15-3 and second place in the RMAC.
Of course, both teams are a little different from last season. Fort Lewis lost six seniors off last year’s team.
“We had to work to get everybody back into it,” Pietrack said. “We have really gelled our team together. I think they have really come together.”
During the 10-game winning streak, the rebounding has improved.
“Scoring hasn’t been an issue for us,” Pietrack said. “It has mostly been rebounding in the games we lost. The three games we lost we have been outrebounded in those games.”
Two players Pietrack knew he could count on before the season started was Bach and Blaylock. Blaylock leads the team in scoring, averaging 19.1 points per game, and Bach is second at 18.9.The Skyhawks are getting production beyond those two. This week junior forward Brandon Wilson was named RMAC offensive player of the week for averaging 17.5 points and 11 rebounds for two home games last week.
“Just like any team that is having success, you have a couple of guys who make the all-conference team,” Pietrack said. “In Rasmus Bach and Joshua Blaylock, we have a really nice 1-to-2 punch. Those guys are very talented at our level. What makes our team great is the other guys. We always have at least one or two other guys step up every game. Last week it was Brandon Wilson who really stepped up. He has done a wonderful job.”
Bach credits the coaching staff for making sure the players are ready for each game.
“The coaches don’t let us forget what we are trying to accomplish,” Bach said. “Everyone here are winners and real competitive. No one here has been part of a losing program. Everyone understands that we can’t have a bad Tuesday practice or a bad Wednesday practice because that is going to come and bite you in the butt.”
Pietrack expects Bach will make sure all the players are fired up for Colorado Mines.
“He is one of our captains,” Pietrack said. “He is the vocal leader of our team even though we have a couple of seniors, but they are not quite as vocal as Rasmus. The personality of our team has a lot to do with Rasmus’ personality. When it is crunch time, he is the voice of our team.”
Bach expects the Skyhawks to be ready for the game Friday night.
“This is what you want if you are a competitor and you want to get where you are going,” Bach said. “It is really going to test us. There might be some jitters, but we are going to tell all the guys it is basketball. It is something we have been doing all our life. Let’s go out there and show everybody what we have been doing all year.”
Arkansas Tech and Arkansas-Monticello battle for first in GAC
Tucker Coliseum at Arkansas Tech will have a postseason atmosphere Thursday evening when Arkansas at Monticello arrives for the 7:30 p.m. tipoff for the most important game this season in the Great American Conference.
Arkansas Tech has won its last nine games. The Wonder Boys are 18-4 overall and 14-4 in the GAC, one game behind first-place Arkansas-Monticello, which is 19-3 and 15-3.
In the first matchup, Arkansas Tech won 91-90 at Arkansas-Monticello on Jan. 21. It was the first loss of the season for the Weevils.
“We are very excited about this matchup,” said Arkansas Tech senior guard Justin Graham. “Obviously, they are the best team in our conference according to their record. This will give us the opportunity to jump into first place with those guys.”
Arkansas Tech coach Chad Kline understands the magnitude of the game but wants his players to treat it like any other game.
“It is a big game in the conference rankings, but I feel all games are big games,” Kline said. “We normally get every team’s best shot. We are used to playing in big games. It will definitely get us ready for postseason. It will be a high-level game.”
One of the victories during the nine-game winning streak was the one-point win at Arkansas-Monticello. It was the second win in the winning streak. In that game, the Wonder Boys overcame a 16-point halftime deficit.
“We started getting stops,” Kline said. “In the first half, we weren’t getting back in transition. They were getting a bunch of easy layups. That was kind of how they stretched the lead. In the second half, we made a few adjustments as far as getting back and not allowing any easy baskets. And then our offense started clicking. I think we made 14 threes that game.”
The thing that Kline enjoys most about his team this year is the work ethic from the players.
“The work ethic is like none I had before,” he said. “I am not talking about what we do in practice. I am talking about what guys have done on their own, being in the gym, getting shots up, handling their business and putting the work in. It has paid off so far.”
The battle in North Carolina
If the second meeting is anything like the first one, Lincoln Memorial basketball fans are in for a treat when Queens (N.C.) arrive at Turner Arena for a 4 p.m. ET Saturday tipoff. Queens won the first game 103-101 in overtime on Jan. 9.
Since that game, Lincoln Memorial has won 11 straight games and is 21-4 and 16-3 in the South Atlantic Conference, one game behind first-place Queens, which is 23-2 and 17-2. It is a top 15 matchup with Queens ranked 10th in the NABC top 25 and Lincoln Memorial ranked 15th.
Adding intrigue to the game is Queens is ranked first in the Southeast Region and Lincoln Memorial is second.