Mesa men hit final stretch of regular season this week in Gunnison
The biggest challenge of winning a basketball title in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference isn’t necessarily having the most talent on the floor.
No, the biggest challenge is playing a team hungry to win Saturday night after you play your biggest rival Friday night.
The next biggest challenge is going on the road two days later.
That’s what faces the 13th-ranked Mesa State College men’s basketball team as it opens the final stretch of the regular season Tuesday night in Gunnison.
The Mavericks (19-1, 13-0 RMAC) survived Adams State’s upset bid Saturday night after riding the energy of a crowd of 2,604 on Friday night in an 87-80 overtime thriller against Fort Lewis.
“I told them, ‘I apologize, it’s too bad, but that’s the RMAC,’ ” Mesa State coach Jim Heaps said after Saturday’s win. “It’s Friday-Saturday and the teams that can handle that and play have a chance for a championship. The teams that want to use that as an excuse can use it as an excuse. That’s the way it is. We can use it as an excuse or we can just play through it.”
The weekend sweep allowed the Mavericks to complete two-thirds of the conference schedule unscathed and clinched them a spot in the RMAC Shootout. This season, the top four teams in each division advance to the playoffs and Mesa State has a seven-game lead on fifth-place Western New Mexico with six games to play.
However, the Mavericks, who have won 10 straight games, play four of their final six away from Brownson Arena.
Make no mistake, the Mavericks want to run the table in the conference, mainly to ensure they retain the No. 1 ranking in the Central Region and earn the right to host the first leg of the national playoffs.
Heaps is more concerned that they start playing playoff-caliber basketball.
“Luckily we’ve been there a lot this year,” he said of having to rally from a 12-point halftime deficit against Adams State. “We were down 11 against Central State (Ohio) and won by 10. We know we can play well in the second half, but I just told them after the game, that’s going to come back to bite us at some point.
“We know we can play when we’re down, but we need to come out with more intensity early in the game. Last night we were down 15-5 and tonight it was about that. We need to get some stops and play right from the get-go.”
The women’s team (8-12, 5-8) is one game out of playoff contention, thanks to their upset of second-place Adams State on Saturday night. They trail Western State by one game for the final playoff spot.
The Mavs played one of their worst games of the season at home against Western State, so they’re looking to avenge that performance.
They might be without junior guard Jocelyn Zarling, who sustained a concussion early in Friday’s game. Saturday she said she felt better and told coach Roger Walters that this concussion wasn’t the worst she’s had.
She’ll be re-evaluated today and Tuesday to determine her playing status.
Saturday, Mesa State plays at Western New Mexico, and will be without guard Hannah Breidel, who is scheduled for surgery Wednesday to repair a deviated septum. Walters is hoping Zarling will be cleared by midweek so the Mavs don’t face a game with only six players.
“The thing is, you can always point fingers, yeah, the reason we only have seven kids … there are built-in excuses, but we can compete with seven, we really can,” he said.
What Walters really likes is how his team has learned to compete.
“This is just … I think this is a good start to something that can get a ton better,” he said after their 53-49 win over Adams State. “These kids are always going to be special because they’re the beginning of it.”