At times when Skyline rallied in the second half to tie the game, it looked like déjà vu was going to hit at Fort Morgan High School on Wednesday. But the boys basketball team hung on down the stretch.
The Mustangs took a 50-42 lead at the end of the third quarter and used a small run in the final two minutes to defeat Skyline 64-58 and advance to the second round of the 4A state tournament.
"This was a total team effort tonight," head coach Ty Trahern said. "I'm proud of our kids."
No lead was safe or bigger than six points in the first half as the Mustangs and Falcons traded the lead four times. Juniors Luis Garcia and Trey McBride got the offense going early for Fort Morgan while four different players scored for Skyline in the first quarter, which saw the game tied at 16. The two juniors continued to score in the second and started to get contributions from seniors Tate Kembel and Austin Breidenbach for 18 points in the quarter.
That scoring could not get the Mustangs a halftime lead as two key guards for Skyline went off for big nights.
Nate Higgins scored 15 points in the half and Brayden Blick also made a number of 3-pointers throughout the game to keep the Falcons in it. A deep 3-point shot at the buzzer by Higgins tied the game at 34 going into the half, leaving Trahern looking for an answer to slow down the two veteran guards.
"We knew they had two really tough guards," Trahern said. "(Blick) is one of the better shooting guards we've seen all year. He shot the lights out again tonight. I thought our defensive positioning was good on him. He just made some tough shots."
Fort Morgan opened the second half on a 12-2 run behind McBride and Kembel on offense. Senior Joey Shurtleff also played a big role in the run by containing Higgins to just two points in the quarter. With the backcourt duo for Skyline cooling off, the Mustangs led by eight and started to gain the momentum.
"We had a few adjustments on the defensive end on how to play (Brick)," Trahern said. "We got caught miscommunicating a little bit. Of course, they will happen in a loud gym. Our communication was the key."
Momentum started to fade early in the fourth quarter for the Mustangs as the two guards for Skyline got back on track.
Higgins scored the first bucket and back-to-back 3-pointers from Blick and him tied the game at 52. It was a 10-2 run over roughly six minutes of play in the quarter as Fort Morgan started missing some looks they were hitting earlier in the game.
At that critical point, Trahern called a timeout with 2:01 remaining and his team trying to find an answer late.
"I told them to finish," Trahern said. "It was gut-check time for us at that point. That's what a lot of players dream about."
Kembel hit a 3-pointer following the timeout to keep Fort Morgan in front and a pair of layups from McBride saw the lead go back up to 59-52 heading into the final minute of play.
"I thought our kids rose to the challenge and got the job done," Trahern said.
McBride led the Mustangs with 20 points and 9 rebounds, Garcia had 13 of his 17 points in the first half, and Kembel was the third player in double figures with 14. Skyline saw Higgins finish with 23 points and Blick scoring 14.
With the win, Fort Morgan gets its first playoff victory since 2009 and moves on to the second round of the 4A state tournament to face No. 13 seeded Evergreen (18-5) on Saturday. Game time is set for 6 p.m.
"We have to get our legs underneath us," Trahern said. "This was an emotional and tiring game for our kids. We'll watch some film and start game-planning (Thursday) to make sure that we are well prepared."