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Tigers fall in final road game

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

TOPEKA -- Fort Hays State University men's basketball coach Mark Johnson believed his post players "weren't physical enough" against a relatively small Washburn University team. Starting forwards Jake Stoppel and Dwayne Brunson combined for 6 of 18 from the field for 18 points.

The Ichabods hit multiple big shots, finished 57 percent from the field, 42 percent from 3-point range and a perfect 11 of 11 from the foul line. None was bigger than a guarded trey from senior Leon Flowers on the right side with 42 seconds left.

In addition, FHSU sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson had trouble getting to the foul line, and a controversial no-call on Washburn junior Alex North with 1:47 remaining helped turn the tide.

The factors eventually led to a 79-70 loss for the Tigers on Wednesday night at Lee Arena. Fort Hays, receiving votes in the NCAA Division II national poll and sixth in the first Central Region poll, dropped to 20-5, 11-5 MIAA. Washburn moved to 16-8, 9-8 MIAA.

"We were playing as hard as we can on defense, they were just hitting tough shots," Nicholson said.

FHSU has three regular season games left, all at home, starting Saturday against University of Nebraska-Kearney.

The Tigers likely need to win at least two of three to stay securely in the mix for an NCAA tournament berth and keep a top-four seed and first-round bye to the conference tournament.

Nicholson, who led the Tigers with 16 points, is 169 of 211 from the foul line this season, including 1 of 2 on Wednesday. He tied the school record for made free throws set by Mark Wilson in 1978-79.

Nicholson has ranked second nationally nearly all year in free throws attempted, but has just 11 foul shots attempted in the last four games. He has nine contests where he has recorded double-digit free throw attempts in a game this season. Nicholson had benefited from new rule changes this year that allowed more fouls called.

"I feel like they are going back to the old way," Nicholson said of the officials. "Beginning of the year, they were calling all those tick-tack fouls. It's the same thing this late in the season, but they are just not calling it anymore. I don't know why, but I am being the same aggressive as I was the beginning of the season. I am just not getting the same calls."

Wednesday marked the season's final regular season road contest for the Tigers, which finished 8-4 in true road games (6-4 MIAA).

"If you look back now, disappointing that we lost tonight obviously, but I think you would take the 6-4 in conference on the road before it started," Johnson said. "I think you would say, 'Hey, that's a pretty good road record.' What we have got to do now is close the deal at home."

In the regional rankings, FHSU was hurt by a weak non-conference strength of schedule, including wins against Oklahoma Panhandle State University and Rockhurst (Mo.) University.

"That's about where I thought we'd be," Johnson said. "There is a lot to play for."

Fort Hays shot just 30 percent in the first half Wednesday, and trailed 36-31 at the break.

"We weren't as physical with (their big guys), but I did think we played hard," Johnson said.

The Tigers led 50-48 midway through the second half and trailed 70-65 with 1:47 left when North, who paced the Ichabods with 21 points and eight rebounds, collected a weak side offensive rebound and scored a putback. Johnson wanted an offensive foul on North.

"No call," Johnson said. "We should have got a foul called there I think and had the ball going the other direction."

Nicholson drove in for a layup that cut the deficit to 74-70 with 72 seconds remaining. Then, FHSU guarded well until the final seconds in the shot clock when Flowers sunk a contested 3. Flowers, the Ichabods' lone senior, finished with 14 points. Johnson called the two "back breakers" the no-call on North and the trey.

"I thought we played really good defense, and he just stuck a deep 3 with his hand in his face," Johnson said. "Give him credit, senior night for him. He played really well."