Tigers close out regular season with win on Senior Night
Published on -3/3/2013, 3:29 PM
By CONOR NICHOLL
Jason Ball grew up in Hays, is one of Hays High School's all-time greats and has watched Fort Hays State University basketball games virtually his entire life. Including a redshirt season, he has spent five years playing for FHSU. Ben Congiusta is a Sydney, Australia native. Congiusta first went to NCAA Division I University of Tennessee-Martin before he spent the last four years with the Tigers.
Together, Ball and Congiusta have helped form a solid core for another successful Fort Hays squad that completed the regular season with an 87-53 victory against Lincoln (Mo.) University on Friday's Senior Night at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
"We have a good group of guys in that locker room," Tiger coach Mark Johnson said. "When that happens, they are selfless, they just want to win, they don't care about who is making shots."
Fort Hays, ranked ninth in the Central Region rankings, finished at 19-7, 13-5 MIAA and can take no worse than second in the final standings. FHSU has clinched a first-round bye to next week's conference tournament. Lincoln, led by 26 points from senior Cedric Ridle, closed the year at 3-25, 2-16 MIAA.
"It's meant a lot to me," Congiusta said. "People are great, town is great, it's been a great program and I love my teammates. It was very emotional for me and I am sure for Jason. We have been here for quite awhile. It's been wonderful, and I just want to thank everyone for their support."
At 7 p.m. Saturday, University of Central Missouri (13-4 MIAA) was to play at Washburn University (11-6 MIAA). If UCM wins, the Mules take the league title.
If UCM loses, Fort Hays wins its first MIAA championship on a tiebreaker. FHSU, with 10 new players, opened 2-2 overall and then 4-4 in MIAA play, but won nine of its last 10. Johnson said it "gets emotional even talking" about the high character of his team.
"When you bring a whole new team together and you start off 2-2 and 4-4 in league, now a lot of programs would like to be that," Johnson said. "But for us, that's a disappointment. We stuck together, everybody kept buying in. It would be easy for a bunch of new guys to go, 'This isn't working.' They stayed together and kept working."
Ball and Congiusta have spent more time in the program than any current player.
In addition to wins, the duo has formed a lifelong friendship during the past four years.
"Everybody is really, really close on the team," Ball said. "Me and Ben, we have got one of those relationships that are hard to find outside of basketball and inside the game."
Congiusta has spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with the Ball family. When Congiusta Skypes with his parents, Ball is usually there.
"Jason has become one of my best friends in America and Australia," Congiusta said. "We are going to stay close for the rest of our lives, and I really appreciate that friendship, and I am glad that we have something like that."
After he graduated from HHS, Ball was uncertain about his future. Johnson provided the opportunity to walk on. After Friday's win, Ball became emotional when he discussed his career.
Ball played in his 54th career game, but collected his first career start. He finished with three points on a trey and two assists in 13 minutes. For his career, Ball has shot 25 of 62 (40.3 percent) from long range.
"It's just an honor to be part of this program," Ball said. "Growing up, I have always wanted to play here. This whole town has always shown me support, has always had my back. Coach Johnson, the coaching staff and guys on the team have always been there with me. Whenever my time has come, I have been ready."
Congiusta started his 59th straight contest and finished with eight points. Senior Lance Russell, a three-year player, collected 14 points, while senior Rundell Mauge, in his first winter with FHSU, had three points and five rebounds. Freshman point guard Craig Nicholson led the team with 23 points and six assists. Arguably the league's best player, Nicholson has started all season, an extreme rarity for a freshman in the MIAA. But Johnson said the entire team has supported Nicholson all year -- and allowed the Tigers to post another strong year.
"Craig has been amazing all season," Ball said. "I have been watching games here, being from here, since I was 5 years old and he is one of the best freshmen that I have ever seen play here. He is a big reason for our success and without Craig, I guarantee we wouldn't be where we are today."