FHSU men wrap up conference championship
Published on -3/4/2013, 10:23 AM
By CONOR NICHOLL
The Fort Hays State University men's basketball team completed the regular season with an 87-53 victory against Lincoln (Mo.) University on Friday night at Gross Memorial Coliseum. The contest capped a big turnaround for the Tigers, gave the program no worse than a No. 2 seed for the postseason conference tournament this week, and sealed a first-round bye.
However, FHSU, which finished 13-5 in MIAA play, knew it still could win a league championship. On Saturday night, University of Central Missouri played at Washburn University. Coach Mark Johnson thought "at worst case, that's a 50-50 game." If UCM lost, the Mules would finish 13-5.
"If it works out, it would be wonderful," senior guard Ben Congiusta said.
"We've tried our best and we have given everything we have, so hopefully it works out. But if it doesn't, we can still hold our heads high and try our best in Kansas City."
Late Saturday night, Washburn pulled off a 95-78 victory. Fort Hays earned its first MIAA regular season championship.
Since it switched leagues before the 2006-07 season, FHSU had finished second twice in the regular season in 2009-10 and '10-11, and won the conference tournament in '10-11.
It marks the second regular season conference title in the 12-year Johnson era, joining the 05-06 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference title.
The conference declared the Tigers and Mules co-champions, but Fort Hays earned the No. 1 seed for this week's conference tournament at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo., because of a head-to-head tiebreaker.
FHSU opened the conference season with a 77-72 home victory versus the Mules on Dec. 5, the lone time the two teams played this year. The Tigers now have won 22 regular season and conference tournament championships.
"Really proud of the group," Johnson said.
FHSU will face either No. 8 Emporia State University or No. 9 Missouri Southern State University at noon Thursday. Fort Hays, ranked No. 9 in the Central Region rankings, hasn't solidified an NCAA Division II tournament bid yet, despite winning the conference.
The Tigers (19-7 overall) likely need to win Thursday to have a top-eight spot in the region. Last year, the MIAA had a three-way tie for first with Washburn, Central Missouri and Northwest Missouri State University. UCM lost in the first round of the conference tournament and didn't make the NCAA field.
"Now it doesn't matter what you now did during the regular season," Johnson said. "We put ourselves in position. We are already in Kansas City. Now, we have to find a way to take advantage of it. I think the way the regional thing is working out, I would say we are going to have to win a game. If we lose on Thursday, it's probably season over."
Fort Hays, with 10 new players, started the season 2-2 and then 4-4 in conference play before it finished 9-1 down the stretch.
"That's a big thing about the quality of people that we have in our program," Johnson said. "To bring a whole new team together and you start off 2-2 ...They stayed together, kept working and bought in and good things happen to good people who work hard."
The 72.2 conference winning percentage isn't the best in the Tigers' MIAA era.
In '09-10, FHSU went 16-4 (.800), while the 10-11 season provided a 16-6 (.727) mark. However, in those two years, Fort Hays fell short behind great Central Missouri and Missouri Southern squads.
This winter, Washburn and UCM were picked to pace the league. Washburn opened No. 2 in the country in the preseason.
However, helped by some injuries to top players and an unbalanced schedule in the newly formed 15-team league, parity reigned. No team is receiving votes in the national poll. FHSU's 72.7 winning percentage is the lowest by a MIAA men's basketball conference champion since Northwest Missouri went 10-4 (71.4) in '86-87.
In a tight race, the Tigers finished one game ahead of Lindenwood (Mo.) University, Washburn and Northeastern State (Okla.) University, squads FHSU finished 0-4 against.
Against elite teams, Washburn fared the best with a 4-1 record versus the top-five squads.
On a possession analysis, Central Missouri was the league's top squad. The Mules finished plus-11.75 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions in MIAA play.
FHSU stood second at plus-9.89, while Washburn was third at plus-9.57.
But the Tigers built a title resume on not taking bad losses and winning at home. In league play, FHSU went 8-1 at home and 12-1 against the bottom 10 teams.
"They had big gains they could make, and give them credit for making those big gains," Johnson said.
Washburn, Lindenwood and Northeastern all dropped at least two MIAA home contests, while Central Missouri lost five times on the road, including one at Missouri Southern.
As well, in MIAA play, the Tigers led the league in free throw percentage (79.8), field goal percentage (48.4) and by a wide margin in 3-point field goal percentage (42.0). Freshman Craig Nicholson could win conference freshman of the year and could earn MIAA Player of the Year honors.
Nicholson is set to break the school record for assists per game (7.0) and the Tigers are on course to set the school's single season free throw percentage record (76.2).
Nicholson and the Tigers' shooting helped Fort Hays finish second in the conference in offensive efficiency at 1.129 points per game, trumping a defense that stood seventh at 1.030.