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FHSU men top UCO in MIAA action

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

University of Central Oklahoma senior forward Spencer Smith had the ball down low with 12.5 minutes left in Wednesday's contest. Smith went up for a shot and Fort Hays State University junior Dwayne Brunson blocked the ball.

Freshman point Craig Nicholson grabbed the defensive rebound, turned and immediately started the fast break. He passed to senior guard Ben Congiusta on the wing, who quickly found senior Lance Russell for an open jumper.

The play gave FHSU an 11-point lead and forced a Broncho timeout.

The lead was the highest of the game for the Tigers, who had to withstand a late run. However, helped by big offensive nights from Nicholson, Russell and Brunson and just enough defense, FHSU earned a 78-71 victory at Gross Memorial Coliseum.

Fort Hays never trailed in the final 24 minutes, but the Bronchos always kept it close, including a two-point margin with 71 seconds left.

"You just need to maintain your lead," coach Mark Johnson said. "You don't quite to seem to hit the panic button, and the other team maybe doesn't gain as much. The way they play, they are going to make runs. I felt that run was coming."

The Tigers moved to 12-6 overall, 6-4 MIAA, while UCO dropped to 7-11, 5-5 MIAA. Fort Hays moved to 1-0 on a four-game homestand that stretches through two weeks.

"Good win, had to have it," Johnson said. "This is an important homestand. Really felt like you can't have success on your homestand if you don't win the first one, so this was really, really big for us."

UCO, known for its athleticism, offense and high foul count, shot 40 percent from the field and hit 11 treys.

"They are a tough matchup," Johnson said. "They make it hard on you, they spread you out."

Three players scored in double figures, including 24 points from Smith and 13 from junior Josh Gibbs, who Johnson said at times is possibly the league's best offensive player. The Bronchos committed 24 fouls, six more than Fort Hays, and collected a first half technical. Central Oklahoma used both a full-court press and zone, grabbed 13 offensive rebounds and held a plus-six edge on the glass.

"Coach told us earlier in the week that this is one of those games where we have got to keep our composure," Russell said.

Helped by the rebounding, Central Oklahoma led early, but Fort Hays led 37-35 at halftime. FHSU went on an 15-6 run in the first eight minutes of the second half before UCO started to come back.

Still, Russell scored 22 points, one off his career high. Nicholson tallied 15 points and a career-high 12 assists, seventh best for a single game in Tiger history.

"We kind of go as Craig goes," Johnson said. "He has to play well. I know that is a lot of pressure on a freshman."

Brunson tacked on 18 points. Junior Marty Wendel didn't score, but provided 25 minutes of quality defense off the bench, and junior Carson Konrade hit two treys in the second half. He helped contain Gibbs to 4 of 11 shooting.

"I thought going into the game, Marty was the only guy, you look at a body type, a height type, an athletic type, can match up the best," Johnson said of the 6-6, 210-pound Wendel. "It seemed like our other guys were too small or not quite as mobile enough. Marty did a great job defensively."

Each time UCO closed the gap late, Fort Hays managed to stay in control. At 64-60, Nicholson drove right behind a Brunson screen, collected a foul and hit a free throw. At 65-63, Konrade made a pass that ricocheted off a UCO player's leg. Fort Hays maintained possession and Russell eventually hit a 3.

"Against the zone, you've got to really move the ball to catch them off set, so you can attack and make the right play and get an open look," Russell said.

At 68-66, Russell finished off with a 3-point play to push the lead to five points.

At 71-69, senior Jamell Cormier drove down the middle against Russell, but lost the ball and committed a turnover.

"I tried to give him a step," Russell said. "He tried to take me, and then I cut him off at the end. It bounced off his leg. Our ball."

Then Nicholson made six free throws down the stretch to help earn the win. FHSU will host Missouri Southern State University on Saturday.