By CONOR NICHOLL
On Jan. 4, the Fort Hays State University men's basketball team was 0-3 in MIAA play. In the first contest back from holiday break, the Tigers traveled to Missouri Southern State University, a Lions team a seven-game winning streak. FHSU had lost three in a row in Joplin, Mo. dating back to 2008-09. Senior forward Dwayne Brunson was hobbled with a knee injury that would bother him the rest of the season.
However, FHSU delivered a 76-67 victory and limited the Lions to 38.8 percent shooting, still a season-worst for Missouri Southern.
"At that point, we knew that our defense was the reason why that we wasn't winning games, so it was time for us to pick it up," senior forward Dwayne Brunson said. "That's what we did in that game."
Last week, Tiger coach Mark Johnson said that victory and a 65-59 road win at Emporia State University on Feb. 8 were the two games where the Tigers showed great toughness. The Southern win started a season-high 10-game winning streak.
"Competed big defensively and on the glass," Johnson said.
On Saturday, Fort Hays, 22-7 and seeded No. 6 in the Central Region, again faces a Missouri Southern squad on a big winning streak in the first round of the NCAA Division II regional in Mankato, Minn.
The Lions (24-5) are the No. 3 seed, ranked No. 19 nationally and currently ride a nine-game winning streak, including a MIAA conference tournament championship last weekend. Start time is noon from the Taylor Center in Mankato, Minn.
FHSU is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010-11 and sixth occasion in Johnson's 13 years as head coach. Johnson is 3-5 all-time in the NCAA tournament with first-round victories in his last two trips. A loss would mean the end of Southern coach Robert Corn's career.
Corn, the Lions coach for the last 25 years, is the winningest coach in MSSU history. He announced his retirement earlier this winter and will take another position within the university. Johnson first played against Corn when he was a guard at Pittsburg State University.
"Really respect him," Johnson said.
Southern has the 10th best offense nationally at 87.2 points per contest and stands ninth in scoring margin. Senior guard Marquis Addison leads Missouri Southern at 17.1 points per game and collected second team all-region honors.
"The key is just to slow them down and then hopefully, we hit enough shots to win the game," Brunson said.
Johnson considers Southern probably the MIAA's biggest team.
Southern pushes the pace off makes and misses.
"We have got to get them in the half court, and then once we get them in the half court, we've got to be big on the glass, and not let their athleticism affect us," Johnson said.
FHSU sophomore guard Craig Nicholson was a first team all-region pick after he led the team with 17.3 points and 7.3 assists.
"If he is healthy, that gives us a great chance, especially with the way that Southern tries to pressure," Johnson said.