Early lead lifts Mesa men to win

Landon Vermeer was Mr. Johnny-on-the-spot this weekend for the Colorado Mesa University men’s basketball team.

But he’s not one who’s going to take the credit.

“Quite a weekend for us,” he said after he came up with a couple of key plays in the final seconds — for the second straight night — in the Mavericks’ 81-75 win over New Mexico Highlands. “Two close games.”

With 35 seconds left, Mesa was clinging to a four-point lead.

Stargell Love missed a jumper, and Vermeer, a 6-foot-2 guard, skied for a defensive rebound. He was fouled and hit the floor hard, but he made both free throws.

The Cowboys’ Dominic Baca banked in a 3-pointer with 24 seconds left, and Highlands, after a timeout, fouled Vermeer on the inbounds play.

Again, he hit both free throws, putting CMU up 80-75.

“Mike (Melillo) made some big shots and had that big block at the end. We grind it out, like Coach said,” Vermeer said.

Ah yes, the big block. And the big tip.

With eight seconds to play, Roland Fitch put up a shot for Highlands, but it was swatted away by Melillo. The ball was headed out of bounds in the corner by the Cowboys’ bench.

Just before it went out of bounds, Vermeer, who tipped the decisive rebound to Colton Burgon on Friday, tipped it back to Melillo, who hugged the ball as he was fouled.

“It went to the baseline, and I was running over because I knew it was off Mike,” Vermeer said. “It was almost out of bounds, so I tip-toe grabbed it and got it back to Mike. I was lucky it didn’t get swatted all the way out of bounds, because they would have gotten the ball again.”

Melillo made one free throw to clinch it.

The Mavericks, who ran when they could but settled into their half-court game when necessary, built a 12-point lead early in the second half.

Highlands, though, started hitting shot after shot after shot.

“Man, they hit shots,” CMU coach Jim Heaps said. “I was proud of them that they hung tough in that stretch. I don’t think we got down by more than four. We answered until we got a rhythm going and they started to miss a little bit.”

Three-pointers in transition. Offensive rebounds. Driving 
layups. It seemed everything the Cowboys put up went in.

Heaps kept telling the Mavericks it was all right, just keep grinding away. And they did.

“We took a timeout, and that’s what we said: It’s a game of runs, they’ve had their run,” Heaps said. “They caught us about the 13-minute mark, and that’s a lot of basketball left.

“They were kind of playing on emotion, and at that point, it’s hard to sustain it for that long.”

A jumper by Highlands’ Ray Riley gave the Cowboys their biggest lead of the second half, 61-55, with 9:02 to play.

Jeff Hart, who led the Mavs with 18 points, found an opening on the baseline and got a pass from Colton Burgon for a layup. Then Hart hit a 3, which was answered by Highlands’ Lionel Coleman.

But Vermeer, who finished with 11 points, hit a 3, and the full house at Brownson buckled in for a wild final five minutes.

All those shots the Cowboys (3-4, 1-3 RMAC) were making earlier in the half started rimming out.

And all the shots the Mavericks (7-1, 4-0) were rimming out earlier started falling.

“That’s one of those that if they keep shooting like that, you say, ‘Heck of a job, good luck to you,’ ” Heaps said, “Luckily they missed some down the stretch, and we got away with one.”

It was 71-70 with 1:48 to play after a pair of free throws by Melillo.

Highlands answered inside, and then Burgon, who was double-teamed and challenged all night inside, grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back in. He was fouled and hit the free throw for a 74-72 lead, then got a pass from Vermeer for a jumper in the paint for a four-point cushion.

Burgon ended up with 17 points and Melillo 16, giving the Mavericks the balance they needed to gut out another conference win.

“It’s a group that’s definitely gonna grind it out,” Heaps said. “I don’t think at any point this year it’s going to be pretty, but they’re a group that believes in each other and believes we can be a good team.”

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