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Tigers, Lopers set to begin MIAA rivalry

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Gross Memorial Coliseum had plenty of joy after the Fort Hays State University men's basketball team defeated Northwest Missouri State University, 59-58, on Wednesday night in a crucial contest that moved the Tigers into a tie for second in the MIAA race.

Northwest Missouri had a good look at the buzzer, but the ball caromed away. The fans gave Fort Hays a standing ovation, and several Tigers ran to midcourt, jumped and bumped shoulders. As junior Dwayne Brunson walked to his postgame interview, he wore a big smile and said, "We won, We won" several times.

"This is just a game that we had to win," Brunson said.

Coach Mark Johnson received high-fives from all three of his children on court several minutes before his own postgame interview.

"Very proud of them," Johnson said.

Still, Johnson told his team to enjoy the win, but come refocused Thursday for Saturday's game against rival University of Nebraska-Kearney. The Tigers are 3-0 on a four-game homestand with each victory coming against a mid- to upper-tier program. FHSU (14-6, 8-4 MIAA) will close out the homestand against the Lopers (6-13, 3-9 MIAA). Game time is 4 p.m. at Gross Memorial Coliseum.

"We need to understand, if we don't take care of business on Saturday, everything that we've done in the first three games of this homestand will be for not," Johnson said.

This year is the first time Nebraska-Kearney and Fort Hays have been in the same conference since 2005-06. After that, FHSU left for the MIAA. The Tigers and Lopers continued to play once a year. This season, UNK became one of four squads to join the MIAA. Fort Hays leads the overall series 73-43 and has won five in a row.

Senior Jon Henderson leads the Lopers with 15.3 points per contest. While Northwest Missouri was defensive-minded, Kearney plays a more free-flowing game that is stronger on offense.

"I think on the other end of the floor, they are going to be harder to guard than what Northwest was," Johnson said.

Senior Jon Henderson leads a team that stands seventh in offense and 14th defensively in the 15-team MIAA. Recently, UNK has been slightly stronger on the road. In their last four road games, the Lopers are 2-2 with a pair of one-point losses.

"They are capable of beating anybody," Johnson said. "Probably the defense has let them down the most this year. I think the Fort Hays/Kearney rivalry, they will have a little (extra) in their step and be ready to go, and I think we are going to get a good effort."