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Team chemistry big for Tigers

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

In his 13 years as head coach, Mark Johnson has mainly coached high character, quality kids and kept the Fort Hays State University men's basketball team consistently a top 25 program. Last winter, Johnson remarked several times about his team's impressive character that helped win the school's first MIAA regular season championship.

This winter, Fort Hays returned some key cogs from last season's group, mainly sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson, senior forward Dwayne Brunson and senior guard Carson Konrade. Junior forward Tom Gabric is now a starter after he redshirted a year ago. Senior forwards Andrew Victoria and Marty Wendel have been key reserves for two years.

The Tigers have integrated multiple high-character players into the rotation, namely sophomore forward Jake Stoppel and junior guards Achoki Moikobu and James Fleming, all junior college pickups. Junior Jared Tadlock is a first-year transfer from NCAA Division I Miami (Ohio).

Fleming called Moikobu probably the best roommate he has ever had. Nicholson has complimented the backup guards several times when they've had good games.

"Outside of the gym, we are always together, and we all get along," Nicholson said. "We never argue with each other, but if we do, we always talk to each other, and we understand what's going on. We never let our differences get on the court. We all have such good chemistry."

This season's group stands at 20-4, 11-4 MIAA and has won 11 of 12 league games after an 0-3 start. While Northwest Missouri State University has a big lead in the race for the conference crown, FHSU's entire body of work -- especially a 10-3 mark in road/neutral games -- has moved the Tigers close to securing a NCAA Division II tournament berth.

"We are very close as a team," Fleming said. "We have very good chemistry, so whoever coach puts in the game, we have to do our job and that's how we get ahead."

As well, FHSU has an opportunity, with four regular season games left, to possibly host a regional. The Tigers are tied with Minnesota State-Mankato and University of Central Missouri for fewest losses in the Central Region, according to  masseyratings.com.

"We have good guys, high character guys, and I think that is why we are able to have success," Johnson said. "We have some really good players, but at the same time, there is not a whole lot of separation out there. We have guys that are good guys that want to win and then they allow us to coach them. You have to have that type to be successful."

On Wednesday, the Tigers travel to Washburn University (15-8, 8-8 MIAA) for the final road game of the regular season. Start time is 7:30 p.m. FHSU is 8-3 in true road games; a ninth road win would be the program's most since it went 10-0 in true road games in a 27-4 season in 2005-06, Johnson's best single season winning percentage.

The Ichabods have lost three in a row and five of six, including an 87-85 Tiger victory on Feb. 1 in Hays. The contest was similar to many this season for FHSU. Fort Hays lost a 17-point lead, trailed by three with 88 seconds left in overtime and came back and won with a game-winning jumper by senior Dwayne Brunson. On Saturday, FHSU forced more adversity in a home game against Pittsburg State University, one of the league's weaker teams, but one that has lost many close contests.

"They get along really well, because I think they have similar interests," Johnson said. "I think everybody on our team has a desire to do well, and a desire for our team to win games."

FHSU led 45-42  early in the second half and Brunson and Nicholson, the team's leading scorers at 17.7 and 17.6 points per contest, were out of the game. Nicholson enters Wednesday with 168 made free throws this season, one off the school record of Mark Wilson set in 1978-79.

Konrade also checked out of the game at the 16:06 mark and didn't re-enter until 8:32 remained. However, Fleming and Moikobu helped FHSU outscore the Gorillas 42-30 in the second half.

"We just stuck together, and when everybody started to come in on us, we came together," Fleming said.