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FHSU men fall on the road

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

ST. CHARLES, Mo. -- Fort Hays State University men's basketball coach Mark Johnson was pleased with his team's defense and energy in Thursday's contest against Lindenwood (Mo.) University. The Lions averaged an MIAA-best 80 points a game and FHSU held them to 11 points below their season average.

However, the Tigers started 1 of 9 from the field, committed five early turnovers and quickly fell behind 16-4. Fort Hays never cut the deficit under six points and fell 69-58 at Hyland Arena.

"Just a lot of turnovers," freshman point guard Craig Nicholson said. "I know I had a lot of dumb turnovers. We just have to go back to the drawing board and get everything figured out. We just wasn't hitting shots. We had a lot of good looks, we just weren't hitting."

The Tigers fell to 10-6, 4-4 MIAA, while Lindenwood, in its first season in the MIAA, moved to 12-4, 5-3 MIAA.

"Offensively, we were terrible," Johnson said. "The reason why we lost tonight -- really, the whole first half, but sure the first 10 minutes, we just turned it over, turned it over, turned it over. ... We got beat tonight because we were just so inept on the offensive end. We didn't shoot it well. We turned it over too much."

Of the Tigers' six losses, four have come by three or fewer points. Thursday marked the second-largest margin of loss for FHSU this season, behind a 76-61 road defeat at Northeastern State (Okla.) University. Like the Northeastern trip, the Lindenwood trip was long -- nearly 500 miles. But the Tigers played much better Thursday than they did in the Jan. 3 loss.

"The long trip, it was horrible, but we can't let that be the reason why we lost the game," Nicholson said. "We made a lot of mistakes. ... We just wasn't making anything. We did our best on defense, but we just kept fouling and they were making their free throws. It wasn't helping at all."

The Lions had posted a 57-9 record in the NAIA ranks the last two seasons under Brad Soderberg, formerly the head coach at NCAA Division I St. Louis University of Wisconsin.

Lindenwood started four seniors, including senior guard Alex Bazzell, a transfer from NCAA Division I University of Missouri-Kansas City, and senior forward Brett Thompson, a St. Louis transfer. Bazzell collected a game-high 23 points, while Thompson scored nine and pulled down 10 rebounds. Of the Lions' three conference losses, two have come in overtime and another one was by three points.

"They are that close from being undefeated and leading our league," Johnson said. "They are very good. They are good at both ends. Sometimes, you are good at one end or the other, but I feel like they are good at both ends. They are not really athletic, but they do a tremendous job of playing help defense, and their size and strength kind of makes it a challenge for you to get anything easy. The teams that have beat them have really shot the ball fairly well from the perimeter."

Lindenwood quickly reached the bonus early in both halves. At the 10 minute, 21 second mark of the first half, the Tigers already committed seven fouls. Lindenwood had just two. In the second half, it was again 7-2 in fouls at the 11:45 mark. FHSU didn't reach the bonus until 91 seconds remained in the game. Lindenwood collected 33 free throws, 18 more than FHSU.

Senior forward Dwayne Brunson, the team's leading scorer and rebounder this season, fouled out with 7 minutes and 4 seconds left. Nicholson played the majority of the second half with four fouls.

"At the end of the day, we are probably going to have more fouls than the other team, just because we don't have the ability to pound it inside like our opponents most nights," Johnson said. "We've just got to avoid those fouls 25 feet out that puts them in the bonus so quickly."

Fort Hays received 10 points off the bench from junior Nick Capiti, two off his career-high. Senior Ben Congiusta collected 16 points, including three fast-break layups in a row in a 10-0 Tiger run early in the second half that closed to within 35-28.

But Fort Hays couldn't close within one possession. FHSU will travel to Truman State (Mo.) University on Saturday.

"That's where the game is won or lost," Johnson said of the early struggles. "These guys are good. It's hard to come back from them. They play good defense. They've got good offensive players. They take care of the ball. They are not going to do anything really stupid to allow you to get back into the game."