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Tigers coast past S.D. Mines

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Junior guard James Fleming joked with Fort Hays State University's 5-foot-8, 160-pound sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson in a recent practice.

"He is pretty strong. I told him the other day his jersey is getting a little small on him," Fleming said with a smile.

Nicholson's strength and toughness fueled another big game, including several key conventional three-point plays in an 84-69 non-conference victory Thursday night against South Dakota School of Mines at Gross Memorial Coliseum. Nicholson led five Tigers in double figures and finished with 20 points and eight assists, both game-bests.

"It's real fun playing with Craig," said Fleming, who finished with 14 points. "He is a great point guard. When you have someone who is a lead guard like that who is always in attack mode, it makes the game a lot easier for our guys."

FHSU moved to 15-3 and improved to 7-0 in 2014. The Tigers finished the non-conference slate at 9-0 and moved to 7-1 at home. The Hardrockers dropped to 6-13. Fort Hays never trailed and led 41-31 at intermission, but Mines kept it close for much of the game.

"We played fairly well," coach Mark Johnson said. "I was really happy with the first half. I thought two things that got us was foul trouble and then the last two minutes of the half, we didn't finish well."

On Saturday, FHSU (6-3 MIAA) plays at Pittsburg State University in a 3:30 p.m. start. The game completes a stretch of seven road contests in the first 10 conference games. A win keeps the Tigers no worse than fourth and, with plenty of home games on the back end, in striking distance for a league title.

"I don't know if you could do any better than that," Johnson said of 7-3.

PSU features junior Devon Branch, a transfer from University of Oregon who averages 19.8 points and shoots 54 percent from the field. Johnson calls Branch arguably the league's most talented player. The Gorillas stand at 6-9, 2-6 MIAA with plenty of close losses.

"The records are a little deceiving," Johnson said.

Excluding MIAA-leading Northwest Missouri State University, Johnson believes Mines has the best front line FHSU will see all year. Senior 6-foot-8 forward Michael Dietz finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds, and sophomore guard Trevor Zacher also tallied 14.

Mines, which accepted a bid to join the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference on Monday, is playing this season as an independent, one of six in NCAA Division II and the only one that's not in Puerto Rico or the Pacific Northwest, according to masseyratings.com. Mines has had several long road trips and already played 11 road games against Division II schools, most of any independent.

"They've probably played the most challenging schedule just because they are an independent, and they've got to go on the road everywhere," Johnson said.

FHSU pushed the pace with Nicholson, including some quick transition buckets. In one play, junior Tom Gabric had the ball near the opponents' free throw line. He immediately led Nicholson with a long pass down the court, who tallied a layup.

"We try to get up and down the floor," Johnson said.

"When you have Craig as your point guard, I think that's how you have to play. It would be silly not to utilize his speed.

"At times, I thought tonight we got to score too fast. But we do get it up the floor quick," he added. "It's one of those, you've got to be aggressive, but be smart enough. I thought in the second half, we did a little better job."

In the first five and half minutes of the second half, Mines cut FHSU's lead to 46-43. However, the Tigers had three three-point plays in a two-and-half minute stretch.

"That's just going up tough and being strong with the ball and not being soft," Johnson said.

At the 11:22 mark, senior forward Andrew Victoria blocked the ball, and then immediately passed to Fleming, who fed Nicholson for a driving layup. Nicholson was fouled, but missed the free throw. At that point, FHSU led 60-47 and effectively put the game out of reach.

"Guys were going up strong," Fleming said. "We come out and we compete. Whatever happens, happens, but we go in there and we give ourselves a chance. We defend and rebound, and when we get on the break, we take it strong to the bucket. A lot of good things happen for us."

Fort Hays 84, S.D. Mines 69
SOUTH DAKOTA MINES (6-13)
Michael Dietz 2-11 10-13 14, Trevor Zacher 4-7 4-4 14, Andrew Rebol 2-3 7-12 11, Shockman 2-6 1-1 5, Dick 2-4 0-0 6, Nolan 1-4 0-0 3, Kilburn 3-8 0-0 7, Schanilec 0-1 0-0 0, Collins 2-5 0-0 5, Thomas 0-0 1-4 1, Withrow 1-1 0-0 3. Totals — 19-50 23-34 69.
FORT HAYS (15-3)
Craig Nicholson 8-11 4-10 20, Carson Konrade 5-6 1-1 13, Tomislav Gabric 3-7 4-4 10, James Fleming 2-8 9-10 14, Dwayne Brunson 7-14 3-3 17, Stoppel 2-3 1-2 5, Moikobu 1-5 0-0 2, Victoria 1-3 0-0 2, Waldman 0-0 1-2 1. Totals — 29-57 23-32 84.
S.D. Mines    31 38 — 69
Fort Hays    41 43 — 84
3-point goals — SD 8-17 (Dick 2-4, Nolan 1-2, Kilburn 1-3, Collins 1-3, Zacher 2-4, Withrow 1-1); FHSU 3-11 (Konrade 2-3, Gabric 0-1, Moikobu 0-3, Fleming 1-4). Assists — SD 15 (Dietz 5); FHSU 15 (Nicholson 8). Steals — SD 3 (Dick 1); FHSU 8 (Gabric 2). Blocks — SD 1 (Dietz); FHSU 6 (Victoria 3). Total fouls — SD 25, FHSU 24. Fouled out — Stoppel, FHSU.
Rebounds — SD 36 (Dietz 12); FHSU 36 (Konrade 7, Brunson 7). Turnovers — SD 14, FHSU 8. A — 2,163.