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Tiger men pushing the pace

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Fort Hays State University freshman Craig Nicholson found senior center Rundell Mauge for a dunk early in the first half of Wednesday's 74-59 home victory against Southwest Baptist (Mo.) University.

Midway thtough the second half, Nicholson drove in against two SBU defenders. He had junior Carson Konrade open on the right-side perimeter. Instead, Nicholson make a quick move, split the defenders and got off a shot in the lane for a basket.

A few minutes later, FHSU executed a perfect fast break when Mauge quickly passed to Nicholson, who tossed an underhand pass to a sprinting senior guard Ben Congiusta, who scored a wide-open layup.

The victory was the 236th of coach Mark Johnson's 12-year career and moved him ahead of Bill Morse for sole possession of second place on the Tigers' all-time wins list.

The quick movement and fast break ability is common for the Tigers and Nicholson, who continues to play at a high level as the season reaches the halfway mark in the schedule and the one-third pole in conference play.

"I thought they had a hard time in transition," Johnson said. "I understand. Craig can be hard to handle. We are trying to do that every game. Sometimes, it's what the defense gives you, and the defense gave us those opportunities at times tonight."

Fort Hays stands at 10-4, 4-2 MIAA, part of a massive logjam near the top of the 15-team MIAA. On Wednesday, two lower-tier teams, Lincoln (Mo.) University and Truman State (Mo.) University, defeated two upper-tier squads, Northwest Missouri State University and Washburn University, on the road.

On Saturday, FHSU will travel to Pittsburg State University (11-4, 4-3 MIAA). Start time is 1:30 p.m. for the women and 3:30 p.m. for the men. Kaleb Porter leads the Gorillas with 15.4 points per contest.

University of Central Missouri leads the league at 5-1 with its lone loss coming to the Tigers. Seven teams are either 10-3, 10-4, 11-3 or 11-4.

"It's a jumbled mess," Johnson said.

Fort Hays has averaged 71.7 possessions per contest, according to noted statistician Ken Pomeroy's possession formula. In the last four seasons, a stretch that includes two years with All-American point guard Dominique Jones, it's the fastest the Tigers have played. The last three seasons have delivered 66.8, 70.8 and 68.8 possessions per game.

FHSU has averaged 1.10 points per possession, a higher mark than last season (1.05) and slightly behind the two Jones' years (1.14 and 1.12). The Tigers have liked playing quickly, even the 7-foot Mauge. He played at North Platte (Neb.) Community College with Joseph Ragland, North Platte's all-time leading scorer and now at Wichita State University.

"Our team at North Platte, they were a fast team also," Mauge said. "It' kind of getting back to what I am used to. I like the way Craig moves the ball, I like the way that Lance (Russell) plays, I like the way that Ben plays. All of my teammates, it's great to be around them."

Early in the season, Fort Hays had some trouble with turnovers. However, the Tigers have virtually maintained their offensive efficiency in conference play, a trend that usually doesn't happen because of the difficult MIAA slate.

Last season, FHSU averaged 65 possessions and 1.03 points per game in conference.

This year, FHSU is at 67.8 possessions per contest and 1.09 points per game versus the MIAA. Fort Hays has committed 19.1 turnovers per 100 possessions in MIAA action, and 19.9 overall. As well, Fort Hays is 6-0 overall, 3-0 MIAA play when all of its regulars are healthy.

"We got all the shooters, we got all the post," Mauge said. "Definitely, tougher to beat with all of our guys back."

Nicholson, one of the nation's top freshmen in assists, continues to lead the conference at 6.8 assists per contest. Four Tigers, led by junior Dwayne Brunson, average between 15.5 and 12.9 points per game. Against SBU, Nicholson had nine assists and five players had at least nine points.

"I thought they really didn't have an answer for Craig defensively," Johnson said. "When Craig was in the game, he really was able to get around their guys and put pressure on their defense and put havoc on their defense."