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Tiger men rally for OT win at Emporia State

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

EMPORIA -- Coach Mark Johnson walked out of the Fort Hays State University men's basketball locker room after Saturday's contest at Emporia State University. He quickly met some fans and boosters and said a phrase several times.

"That was a miracle," Johnson said.

Fort Hays, down 10 with three and a half minutes left, came back to tie the game with 2.7 seconds remaining in regulation on a trey from senior Ben Congiusta. The Tigers, with several players cramping and junior Carson Konrade unable to play because of a thigh injury, held on for a 79-76 overtime victory at White Auditorium.

"In my 12 years here, we have had bigger wins," Johnson said. "We've won conference, all that. But I would really have to say this would have to rate in the top three wins we have had in my time here."

Fort Hays improved to 9-3 overall, 3-1 in the MIAA. Emporia State dropped to 5-6, 0-3 MIAA.

Two of the Tigers' conference wins are road overtime victories. FHSU never led by more than one until after regulation.

"I have been here four years, and that is definitely one of the greatest wins I have been a part of," Congiusta said. "It was a lot of fun, and it's so great to come away with a win. It was a very tough game."

The Tigers bounced back from a sluggish road loss to Northeastern State (Okla.) University on Thursday and went 1-1 on the first three-day, two-city road trip of the year.

"How do you come back from 10 down late with a tired team?" Johnson said. "We were exhausted. Just for our guys to pull this off, just unbelievable. Unbelievable. Really proud of them."

The Tigers had four players collect at least 37 minutes: Congiusta, junior Dwayne Brunson, senior Lance Russell and freshman Craig Nicholson. Before the contest, Johnson told his assistants the quartet needed at least 15 points apiece for the Tigers to have a chance. Without Konrade, the Tigers only have four consistent scoring threats.

Brunson was so tired, that several times late, he asked to come out of the game. However, Johnson kept him in. Congiusta said Russell was sick at halftime.

"It was an amazing win," Nicholson said. "We were all dead tired, cramping up. But it was all heart, that's all it was. We had to dig down, and just get the win. Personally, I was cramping up the overtime and then the end of the second half. I knew I had to fight through it, because they needed us. I knew Dwayne was hurting, too."

Brunson collected 18 points and 11 rebounds in 37 minutes. Russell had 44 minutes and 16 points. Congiusta tacked on 16 points in 43 minutes, while Nicholson had 15 points in 43 minutes.

"We were very disappointed in ourselves at Northeastern," Johnson said. "They were a great team, but we just were not ready to play, and that just hasn't happened all year to this group. I felt like we have been focused. Even in our two tough losses earlier this year, I didn't feel like it was an effort problem. We just got beat."

"The motto of today was just come out here and play as hard as you can and as tough as you can," he added. "Whatever the results are, the results are, but let's be proud of ourselves."

Fort Hays trailed 70-60, but Nicholson cut the deficit to eight on a pair of free throws with 2:39 left. Then, Congiusta hit a trey. With 68 seconds left, Nicholson collected a backcourt steal and layup to close the gap to 70-67.

"He floated the pass, and I knew that it was my time to take the ball and get a layup, so I just did that and played defense," Nicholson said.

After a missed trey from ESU, Nicholson hit a floater on the left side to close the game to one.

"I practice the runner all time," Nicholson said. "Unfortunately, it doesn't go in for me every time, but I am just glad that it went in that time when we needed it."

Emporia bumped the score to 72-69 on a Caleb Wright layup before Congiusta received a pass from Nicholson and hit a 3 several feet behind the arc to tie the score. Congiusta, 23rd nationally and second in the MIAA in 3-point field goal percentage, is now 33 of 71 from long range.

"I knew it was going to go in," Nicholson said. "I think he is going to make it all the time."

"I caught it, and I didn't think twice," Congiusta added. "I just shot the ball and was happy to see it go in."

Emporia State nearly won the game at the buzzer, but Chris Sights' half court shot went off the back iron.

Fort Hays never trailed in the overtime, but Emporia State nearly took the lead late. FHSU led 77-76 with 42 seconds remaining when the Tigers had a defensive breakdown on a perimeter switch. Sights, who led ESU with 16 points, drove in on the left side, but Brunson blocked the layup.

"We just did everything that we could, and just dug deep," Congiusta said. "We were all very tired."

Fort Hays was up three with three seconds left when junior Marty Wendel was fouled.

Gavin Brown grabbed the rebound, but paused momentarily, uncertain on his decision. ESU ran out of time and never had a last second shot - allowing FHSU to pull off the 'miracle' win.