Pack hoop squads face nationally ranked Ft. Lewis Friday
Lesser teams may shiver at the prospect of the 11th-ranked team in the country coming to town to make perhaps another conquest. The ThunderWolves women’s basketball team, though, is viewing the visit of 18-1 conference foe Fort Lewis as a golden opportunity.The showdown, a rare matinee match up that tips off at 12 p.m. Friday at the Colorado State Fair Events Center, is rich with hype and postseason ramifications. The Skyhawks are a perfect 11-0 in conference play, while the ThunderWolves have rebounded from a mediocre start to win six straight, currently finding themselves in second place in the RMAC Western Division with an 8-3 conference mark and a 14-5 overall record.
A win by Fort Lewis would practically assure that the Skyhawks get the top seed on the RMAC Shootout in March, with the ThunderWolves languishing a distant second in the division and stuck in the middle of a logjam for the last several berths to the tournament.
But a win by the Pack would reshuffle all the expectations in the RMAC, leaving them trailing by just two games for the division’s top spot. It would set up a rematch between the ThunderWolves and Skyhawks on Feb. 16 in Durango, Colo., in which both teams could be playing for all the marbles.
Though the task of knocking off the 11th-ranked team in the country may seem daunting, the ThunderWolves feel they have history as well as a mental edge on their side.
“Our kids are thinking that we have won the last five times we played them, including three times last year,” Pack coach Kip Drown said. “They have much of that same group back this year. We know they’re older and better this year, but we’re very familiar with them. You don’t have the fear factor you might have when you’re playing somebody new.”
But simply put, this Fort Lewis team isn’t the one that had a fairly ordinary 14-13 season last year. In addition to being ranked 11th in the country, Fort Lewis boasts the best team field goal percentage in all of NCAA Division II, and the individual with the highest field goal percentage in the country. The Skyhawks’ leading scorer, Allison Rosel, is shooting a 73.1 percent clip, tops in the nation, and leads the team with 14.0 points per game. She has done all of this coming off the bench, not having started a game at all this season. In a nutshell, Fort Lewis is a team rich with depth, from the starting five down through the bench, Drown said.
“One thing about Fort Lewis is that their top eight or nine kids have played in every game this season,” Drown said. “They’ve been able to keep everybody on the floor, and they’ve had the good luck of not having any injuries. They are a good basketball team and they’ve had a magical year.”
Magical or not, the Pack expects to go into this game with the confidence they can win. In addition to not having lost to Fort Lewis since Jan. 2006, the ThunderWolves have won nine of the last ten matchups with Fort Lewis in Pueblo, dating back to 1999. They also matchup well against Fort Lewis, as both boast accurate outside shooting (Fort Lewis and CSU-Pueblo are first and second in the conference in three-point shooting percentage), but have an advantage in the height department. Sarah Staggs (6-foot-1) and Lindsay Black (6-foot-2) have combined to block 61 shots, relying on a tenacious defense under the basket.
On the perimeter, the ThunderWolves boast one of the best transition defenses in the conference as far as steals are concerned, averaging nearly ten thefts per game. Unfortunately, only Fort Lewis is better, snagging a staggering 12.4 steals per game, tops in the conference.
“We need to try and extend our defense and take them out of their offensive rhythm,” Drown said. “They’re so difficult to defend, because they’re shooting well on the perimeter and they’re finishing plays inside, as well. The big thing is to not give them a lot of second shots and win the turnover battle.”
A win over Fort Lewis would not only vault the Pack further into the upper stratosphere of the RMAC basketball standings, but would give the team their longest winning streak since 2004-05. If the team follows up a Fort Lewis win with a win over Mesa State Saturday, the team will have the longest winning-streak in school history.
Similar to their female counterparts, the ThunderWolves men face a Fort Lewis team that is also ranked (the Skyhawks debuted in the national poll this week with a 25th-ranking), and the opportunity to make their season with a win.
The ThunderWolves were nearly left for dead just three weeks ago, but a hot January has given the team new life. After getting off to a 2-8 start, the ThunderWolves have won six of eight, including four straight, finding themselves right in the thick of the playoff race. In fact, the ThunderWolves would be the eighth and final entrant into the RMAC Shootout if the season ended today.
Fort Lewis (10-1 RMAC, 15-3 overall), has a three game lead over the second place team in the RMAC West Division, Adams State (7-4 RMAC, 13-6 overall). Though a loss wouldn’t doom their season by any stretch of the imagination, the importance is magnified for the ThunderWolves. After their slow start, there is little margin for error for the Pack, as two losses this week might unravel all the progress they’ve made in recent weeks. But if the Pack steps up and gets two wins this week, they could find themselves suddenly tied for second place in the Western Division at week’s end, a concept that seemed unimaginable three weeks ago.
“[The ThunderWolves’ chances against Fort Lewis] is predicated on the way we’ve played the last four games and if we can continue that level of play or not,” Pack coach Patrick Eberhart said. “If our post and perimeter players can do their part, continuing to rebound and playing inside-out basketball, we’ll have a good shot.”
Though the Fort Lewis men aren’t as dominant statistically as their female counterparts, they boast what is far and away the best transition offense and defense in the conference. The Skyhawks lead the conference in steals (10.56 per game) and assists (20.33 per game). They are also the top rebounding team in the conference, averaging nearly 37 boards per contest.
“Fort Lewis is athletic and they are the best team in the league at making you pay for your mistakes,” Eberhart said. “That’s why they’re winning our league. They shoot it well, drive it to the basket well, and do a good job overall. We will have to be disciplined for 40 minutes against this team.”
The ThunderWolves come into this game without a good track record against the Skyhawks. The Pack hasn’t defeated Fort Lewis since 2003 (10 straight), but that kind of history doesn’t affect them. The present says that the ThunderWolves are in the midst of a four-game winning streak, and have no intention of slowing down or cowering in fear.
“There is no fear factor in our team,” Eberhart said. “We are very confident that we can play with Fort Lewis. As far as our guys know, we’ve only lost to them twice, because that’s as long as our guys have been here. We just have to put that kind of stuff away, compete for 40 minutes and give them a good game.”
The men’s tip-off will be at 2 p.m. at the Colorado State Fair Events Center.