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Tigers win on road, snap 2-game skid

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

KIRKSVILLE, Mo. -- With 14 minutes, 28 seconds left in the first half, Fort Hays State University senior Ben Congiusta had a nasty collision and fall near midcourt. He instantly started bleeding and had a deep cut just above his left eyebrow that was several inches long.

Congiusta, the MIAA leader in minutes played per game and second in 3-point field goal percentage, had to leave the contest for about three minutes for a bandage wrap around his head.

Later, Congiusta didn't have any warm-up during halftime because a trainer applied stitches during the break. Still, Congiusta entered the contest with 18:06 remaining. He quickly hit two treys within his first minute of action.

His steady play helped Fort Hays collect a key 74-68 road win at Truman State (Mo.) University on Saturday night at Pershing Arena. It ended the Tigers' three-game road swing and two-game losing streak.

"That was never going to happen," Congiusta said of not returning. "We needed to win this game. No way I wasn't going to play."

FHSU finished a brutal first half of conference action at 11-6 overall, 5-4 MIAA.

Truman State, in its last season of MIAA play before it leaves for the Great Lakes Valley Conference, dropped to 7-11, 4-6 MIAA.

"I thought Ben was really good," Tiger coach Mark Johnson said.

Fort Hays earned its 10th straight victory against Truman, but few have come easy in Kirksville. Pershing Arena has long been one of the older, smaller conference venues, but received a facelift in the offseason with new, purple chair back seats and bleachers.

"It's a long road trip, we had a tough game on Thursday," Congiusta said of the close margin. "Truman is a good team, as well. It's just a tough environment to play in. I feel like the court is kind of different, and the depth perception is kind of different."

The 1,340 fans were one of the bigger crowds FHSU has seen in Kirksville.

The result remained the same: a close Tiger victory. Even though TSU consistently is at the bottom of the league, Fort Hays improved to 6-1 at Pershing Arena under Johnson with five victories by seven points or fewer.

"Our style of play, we are not going to pick up tempo, we are not going to press at times," Johnson said. "Their style, our style, it's going to be a grind it out game pretty much every time, especially here. We did a good enough job to hang on."

On Thursday, Fort Hays lost at Lindenwood (Mo.) University by 11, set a season-low with 58 points and shot 37 percent from the field.

On Saturday, Fort Hays shot 52 percent from the field and 53 percent (9 of 17) from beyond the arc.

"I don't know if we guarded any better than we did (Thursday), but offensively, we were so much better," Johnson said.

Freshman point guard Craig Nicholson rebounded from a struggling performance Thursday and collected 18 points and a game-high nine assists. Junior Marty Wendel contributed a career-high eight points and seven rebounds in what Johnson called probably the forward's best performance of the year.

Congiusta scored 14 points on 5-of-10 shooting (4 of 7 beyond the arc) in 36 minutes. The only times he left the game came because of injury. Congiusta said his head was still throbbing after the game.

"It would have hurt a lot worse to lose," he said. "I am fine. I am not worried about it."

Fort Hays missed Congiusta's strong perimeter defense at the start of the second half. Truman State senior Tom Norton hit two quick 3s. But Congiusta came back with his pair of treys to give FHSU a 40-31 lead with 17:02 left.

"That's just toughness," Johnson said.

Fort Hays led the rest of the way, but Norton made it close late. After he sunk nine treys on Thursday against University of Nebraska-Kearney, Norton finished with five Saturday, including two guarded ones in the final 32 seconds that came from well behind the arc. Norton finished with 15 points; junior Mike Carlson paced the Bulldogs with 18. But FHSU held on for the victory.

"I took a long halftime because they were putting the stitches in," Congiusta said. "I didn't really want them to do it, because I wanted to get out to play the game. I was anxious, but I just had to sit there and wait. I was pretty annoyed to be honest with you. They put about five or six stitches in, and I came out there as soon as I could. I was eager to get back out there on the court."