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Tiger men in key road swing

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Last season, the Fort Hays State University men's basketball team won the regular-season conference championship by mainly playing six Tigers. Four of them averaged at least 12.8 points per contest while Carson Konrade chipped in 9.1 points per contest. Three players averaged at least 32 minutes a game.

This winter, FHSU has received some strong bench support, including back-to-back big games from senior forward Andrew Victoria two weeks ago on a road swing. Last Saturday, the Tigers defeated Lincoln (Mo.) University 88-85. The five starters -- senior forward Dwayne Brunson, sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson, Konrade, sophomore forward Jake Stoppel and junior Tom Gabric -- combined for all but 37 minutes. The bench tallied 11 points and four rebounds.

"We need to do a better job with our bench," coach Mark Johnson said. "Our bench needs to give us more. They need to play with more confidence. I thought Andrew really had a great stretch.

"(Saturday), he struggled when he got out there," Johnson added. "I think it might have been a little tough of a matchup with him with those guys, because they can pop and shoot the ball fairly well. We need more out of our bench. We can't keep riding our starters this many minutes all year long."

Today and Saturday, FHSU (12-3, 4-3 MIAA) has a critical two-game road stretch against University of Central Oklahoma and Northeastern State University. UCO stands at 10-4, 4-3 and NEOSU is 10-4, 5-2 MIAA. Northeastern's Bryton Hobbs leads the conference with 23.5 points per contest, while UCO's Josh Gibbs is at 22.1 points and 12.8 rebounds, fourth best nationally. Start time is 7:30 p.m. today and 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

"It goes both ways," Johnson said. "I need to have more confidence in them and they need to play with more confidence."

The starters delivered big games Saturday. Nicholson finished with 27 points and eight assists and tied the school record with 19 made free throws. Gabric set a career high with 19 points.

"Coach is always like, 'Tom, be aggressive, play hard,' " Gabric said. "That's what I did, and that's what gets me going."

The Tigers shot 87.5 percent from the foul line for the game and is at 80.8 for the season. Last year, FHSU set the school record with a 76.7 free throw percentage. Johnson said he hasn't changed anything with free throws.

"Either you have good foul shooters or you don't," Johnson said. "You want to have a good free throw shooting team, recruit good free throw shooters. Same thing with 3-point shooters. You want to have a good 3-point shooting team, recruit good 3-point shooters. Our guys shoot the free throws well. You hope that continues."