Melillo lifts Mavs into RMAC finals
PUEBLO — Not one player on the Colorado Mesa University men’s basketball team knew what to expect from the semifinals of the RMAC Shootout.
So why shouldn’t a freshman make the biggest play of the season — for the second straight game?
Mike Melillo snapped a contested 3-pointer from the top of the key with 3.2 seconds left Friday night, lifting the Mavericks to a thrilling 65-62 semifinal victory over rival Fort Lewis College at the Colorado State Fair Events Center.
“We executed the play pretty much how it was drawn up,” Melillo said. “I was just supposed to make a read coming off the ball screen and just try to make a play.
“That’s probably the fifth time I’ve been put in that situation this year and I kind of felt I failed my teammates the last several times. I wanted to come up big and make up for that.”
Only three nights before, Melillo stole a pass against Metro State and hit the clinching layup in the Mavericks’ overtime upset of the second-seeded and 13th-ranked Roadrunners in the first round of the conference tournament in Denver.
This one was no upset — it was No. 7 Colorado Mesa vs. No. 6 Fort Lewis, with the Mavericks moving to the title game at 3 p.m. today against top-seeded and second-ranked Colorado School of Mines.
Mesa has made more tournament appearances (18) than any other team in the RMAC, but has yet to win a tournament championship.
“The way I look at it, this team has only been in one. This team’s only been in one tournament, one championship game,” Colorado Mesa coach Jim Heaps said. “And for this team, it’s their chance.”
To get to today’s title game, it took a typical defense-first effort in a typical Colorado Mesa-Fort Lewis game, so maybe the Mavs knew exactly what to expect.
Fort Lewis built an 11-point lead it the first half, pushing the tempo and going inside to Matt Morris (17 points) and outside to Matt Billups (20). It was time for the Mavericks to counter-punch.
In came the second team, a smaller, quicker lineup and suddenly, the Mavericks were back in the game.
Colton Burgon hit a pair of free throws. Nate Nelson made a driving layup and Burgon took a pretty pass inside from Shawn King for a bucket.
The Skyhawks’ 30-19 lead was down to five, 30-25, and Nelson tied it after grabbing a defensive rebound and hitting a short jumper in transition.
“We kind of went semi-small with that second group and put (Blake) Francom at the four,” Heaps said.
“(That) allowed us to go with one post and spread it out a little bit more. That group runs really good offense and they executed down the stretch.”
Burgon, who finished with 14 points off the bench, made a quick move for a layup less than five minutes into the second half for the Mavs’ first lead of the game, 42-41, and from there, it was anybody’s game.
Colorado Mesa (16-12), though, was in a defensive rhythm, which fed the offense, especially Nelson (14 points), who was assigned the task of guarding Billups.
Between Nelson and Jeff Hart, the two defensive stoppers for the Mavs made Billups take 21 shots to get his points.
“We had to play some intense defense on him. When we were at their place he kind of went off on us so this game I didn’t want him to go off,” Nelson said.
Nelson hit a baseline jumper with 1:40 to play for a 62-59 lead, then made a slight bobble on defense, helping off for a nanosecond, which was all Billups needed for a 3 from the corner to tie the game 62-62 with 1:15 left.
Daniel Estes missed a 3 for the Mavericks, Mike Matthews missed a baseline runner for the Skyhawks.
King chased the ball down in the corner and called time with 13 seconds left.
Melillo didn’t flinch when a pair of Skyhawks closed out hard, calmly hitting the 3.
“We played great defense on the last shot, couldn’t have played it any better,” Fort Lewis coach Bob Hofman said. “He just made a tough shot.”
The Mavericks must win today to get into the Central Region tourney next week.
“We talk about it before we leave the locker room,” Nelson said. “We say, ‘Win or go home.’ If we lose we’re out, and we don’t want to end our season with a loss. We want to go to regionals, we want to win a championship.”