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Tiger men fall in final seconds

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Coach Mark Johnson had plenty of emotions after his Fort Hays State University men's basketball team lost 70-69 in the final seconds to Washburn University, ranked No. 13 in NCAA Division II, on Thursday night at Gross Memorial Coliseum.

Before Johnson started his postgame interview, he squatted down, looked at the court and quickly dissected a few plays that could have won the game for FHSU. At times, Johnson was at a loss for words.

On one hand, Johnson was "real proud" of his team. FHSU led by eight midway through the second half versus a top-25 team, and had the lead with under a minute to go. Fort Hays, already with a thin roster, is further depleted now.

Junior Carson Konrade remains out with a thigh injury. Junior center Andrew Victoria didn't play because of an Achilles injury. Junior forward Scott Ochs recently left the team to pursue other interests.

Junior forward Marty Wendel and senior center Rundell Mauge, fouled out before the nine-minute mark of the second half.

"It's hard," junior forward Dwayne Brunson, who led the Tigers with 21 points and 10 rebounds, said. "Because at the end of the day, that five that he puts on the court, that's the five that he expects to go out and do the job and get it done."

Freshman forward Austin Brown, who has played 29 minutes all year and none in MIAA play before Washburn, logged two minutes. After an overtime win last Saturday against Emporia State, three players logged at least 38 minutes and senior Lance Russell played all 40 versus the Ichabods. Fort Hays dropped to 9-4, 3-2 MIAA, while Washburn moved to 9-2, 2-1 MIAA.

"As good as it felt on Saturday to pull out that win at Emporia, that's as bad as it feels right now to not come up with this win tonight," Johnson said.

Fort Hays led 53-45 with 9 minutes, 28 seconds left when Mauge fouled out. At that point, Wendel had already fouled out and Brunson had four fouls.

"Really the key point in the game," Johnson said.

Washburn, paced by senior guard Will McNeill, went on an 11-0 run and took a 56-53 lead. McNeill, the MIAA's leading scorer and arguably the league's best player, led the team with 17 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two steals. The Ichabods shoot 29 percent from 3-point range for the year, but went 9-of-18 (50 percent) from beyond the arc. McNeill sunk his first two treys of the year, including one in the run.

"We had to go small," Brunson said. "They basically took advantage of us."

Washburn led 68-66 with 1:16 remaining when senior Martin Mitchell stole the ball from Russell. McNeill raced down the court, but his wide-open dunk caromed off the back iron. FHSU quickly turned the miss into a 3-pointer from the left side by senior guard Ben Congiusta.

When Congiusta's trey went through, the 2,614 in attendance quickly turned their boos to McNeill into one of the year's loudest ovations. FHSU led 69-68 with 72 seconds left.

"That turned it around for us," Brunson said. "But unfortunately, we couldn't get the job done."

On Washburn's next possession, McNeill drove on the right baseline, but Fort Hays senior guard Jason Ball took a charge. Fort Hays drew the shot clock down, and with 19 seconds left, Russell tried an off-balance trey. McNeill knocked the ball loose.

"We were trying to run a dribble handoff and ball screen on the backside and they did a good job covering it," Johnson said. "That's when we just needed to make a play right now."

A collision occurred, McNeill drew the foul and calmly made two free throws to give Washburn a one-point lead.

"Usually late in games, you've got to have guys that can put their head down and make plays," Johnson said. "William McNeill does a great job for them. Give Washburn credit. We didn't get it done. We just didn't do a great job of finishing in the last minute, players or coaches."

On the game's final possession, freshman point guard Craig Nicholson was supposed to try to make a play, but handed the ball off to Congiusta with a few seconds left.

Congiusta could only attempt an off-balance trey from well beyond the arc. Brunson labeled it a "freshman-senior confusion."

"Craig played great, 16 points, six assists," Johnson said. "He is going to learn that later on. We want him to come off that high ball screen late in the clock. Down one, he has got to put his head down and get to the basket."

Fort Hays will host Southwest Baptist (Mo.) University next Wednesday.

"You felt like you coulda and shoulda won the game," Johnson said. "Just anytime you are up one and have the ball, under a minute to go, you feel like you have a great opportunity to win. We had two bad possessions on offense. Get Washburn credit, but we just had two poor possessions."