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FHSU men blast Kearney

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

In the MIAA grind, the Fort Hays State University men's basketball team has never had a blowout game this winter. Of the Tigers' first eight conference victories, two came in overtime and another was by one point. No game has a bigger margin than 15 points.

On Saturday at Gross Memorial Coliseum, the Tigers enjoyed a 94-68 victory against rival University of Nebraska-Kearney, a rare big win in the jumbled MIAA standings. The victory also continued a rare stretch of dominance for FHSU against its longtime rival.

"I am not used to that," freshman point guard Craig Nicholson said with a big smile.

The Tigers have won six straight versus the Lopers with all the wins coming since 2007-08, Fort Hays' second season in the MIAA.

Since the '07-08 season, Fort Hays is 122-49 (71.3 percent), while Kearney is 75-83 (47.4). Of the six victories, the last five have come by double figures between the longtime basketball powers. It's the Tigers' longest winning streak in the series since 1994-96 and second-longest since '64-65.

"The key to our success is that we have had a little bit better players," Tiger coach Mark Johnson said. "We have had some breaks at their place and won some close games on the road up at their place."

Fort Hays went 4-0 on a two-week homestand and remained in contention for the league championship and NCAA Division II tournament bid with five games left. The Tigers stand at 15-6, 9-4 MIAA, while the Lopers dropped to 6-15, 3-10 MIAA. However, entering Saturday, the top-eight teams had between three and five conference losses.

"It's just whoever can close this deal out the best in the last five games is going to on top because it is so close with everyone," Johnson said. "Part of it too is who is healthy."

Nicholson, like many new players, had to learn about the FHSU/UNK rivalry. Recently, several Nebraska products have told the Wichita native that the Tigers "have to beat Kearney." At first, Nicholson didn't know what the big deal was.

"I found out that they were our rival," Nicholson said.

Saturday marked the first conference game between the Tigers and Lopers since '05-06, the last year the squads were part of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. This year marks the Lopers first season of MIAA play. In front of a season-high 4,077 fans, Fort Hays shot 70 percent overall and 64 percent (9 of 14) from long range in the first half.

FHSU raced out to a 62-32 lead at intermission against the league's second-worst statistical defense. Johnson labeled the first half a "perfect storm."

"I thought we had good ball movement and good activity on the offensive end," Johnson said.

UNK played without injured junior forward Mike Dentlinger, arguably the team's best player.

"When you don't put a lot of pressure on us, we have some skill guys that can get moving and make some shots," Johnson said.

Four players scored in double figures for the Tigers, and Nicholson and junior Carson Konrade led the team with 16 points.

Nicholson also tacked on 11 assists against one turnover, his fifth straight game with at least nine assists. Senior Jon Henderson led the Lopers with 19 points. Fort Hays will be at Northwest Missouri State University on Wednesday.

"We knew that we had an advantage in the post, and we just gave it to the bigs and then we were hitting the 3s, so that helped out, too," Nicholson said.