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MIAA men's field still loaded - FHSU on 10-game streak

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Coach Mark Johnson follows a habit after each postgame, especially at home. He asks for the other scores throughout the league that day. For home contests, the press table provides a sheet with the MIAA games. Johnson usually scans the sheet before his interviews start.

Last Thursday, Fort Hays State University defeated Emporia State University, 99-92, in double overtime. Of the other three games, two contests were each two-point margins.

On Saturday, the MIAA had six men's basketball games. Fort Hays defeated Washburn 87-85 in overtime. Two other contests were one-point margins and another one was a two-point game. The MIAA has long been a parity-driven league, but this season, especially with FHSU, is even closer than normal.

"That's what this league is," Johnson said. "At the end of the year, that's why the eight-seed at times is playing in the (conference tournament) championship game because the eighth seed might have gotten some bad breaks, and the No. 1 seed might have gotten all of the breaks, so there is not really any separation, it's just finding ways to win games."

Fort Hays, ranked No. 24 in NCAA Division II, has already played six overtime games, breaking the school and conference single-season records en route to an 18-3 start, 9-3 MIAA. The Tigers are 4-2 in extended games and have played 35 extra minutes, five off another full game.

"This league is pretty good," senior forward Dwayne Brunson said. "We have teams where no one gets separation. Each night is going to be a battle. You are not going to come out and just win. You have to work for your win."

Some seasons, the Tigers started 17-3 and felt pretty strong about reaching the NCAA tournament. This year is different. FHSU has the league's best road/neutral record at 9-2 and went 9-0 in non-conference play, including seven wins against Division II teams -- important metrics for a tournament berth.

But FHSU, the defending conference champions, is currently in a three-way tie for second in league play. Northwest Missouri State University is first at 11-1, while University of Central Missouri, FHSU and Missouri Southern State University are all tied. The rest of the NCAA Central Region includes Minnesota State and Winona State, ranked No. 22 and No. 25 nationally.

The Tigers have seven games left, including a key road game Wednesday night at rival University of Nebraska-Kearney. Start time is 7:30 p.m. FHSU has won seven straight in the series.

Kearney is 9-10, 5-7 MIAA, but has won four in a row, the league's third-longest winning streak behind the Northwest Missouri's eight and FHSU's 10-game runs.

Connor Beranek leads the Lopers with 17.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson paces FHSU with 18.1 points, fifth-best in the league, and a MIAA-best eight assists a contest. Nicholson earned MIAA Player of the Week honors for the third time this season Monday.

"It's a very good league," Johnson said. "It's a hard region. We are still on the bubble for a NCAA tournament bid with seven games to go. You are 18-3. This level is just a different level than Division I. You have to be really, really special to win championships like (FHSU) last year in the MIAA.

They are hard to come by," Johnson added. "That's why you have to appreciate them when you get them. We are having a great year, and we are still two games behind, but if we just keep taking care of what we do, hopefully when it falls out at the end, good things will happen for us."