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FHSU men grab win against UNK

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

The Fort Hays State University men's basketball team had won 10 straight games when it went to rival University of Nebraska-Kearney on Feb. 5, then a below .500 team. The Tigers lost by seven, then had to think about the loss back home on a cold bus that didn't have heat.

"We were like, 'Dang, we shouldn't have lost this game,' " sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson said.

The Tigers realized they would have another chance on Saturday at Gross Memorial Coliseum. Through practice and then in the locker room pregame, Nicholson noticed a "whole different mindset." Players were quiet and focused. Then, FHSU erased the first loss with a 78-72 victory.

"We were ready for them this game, and obviously it paid off," Nicholson said.

Sophomore forward Jake Stoppel had his best game as a Tiger with 18 points and eight rebounds on 7 of 11 shooting and played strong defense.

"I thought it was his best game on both ends of the floor," Tiger coach Mark Johnson said.

Nicholson finished with 17 points, including a critical three-point play down the stretch, and the Tigers ran better late-game possessions than the Lopers. He went 9 of 10 from the line and has 178 made free throws, most in school history.

FHSU, receiving votes in the NCAA Division II national poll and ranked No. 6 in the Central Region, moved to 21-5, 12-5 MIAA. UNK, one of the league's top teams in the last two weeks, dropped to 12-12, 8-9 MIAA.

The Tigers can lock up a top-four seed and first-round conference tournament bye with a home win against University of Central Oklahoma on Wednesday.

Fort Hays led 41-36 at intermission, but the Lopers came back to take a 50-49 lead midway through the second half.

The Tigers went on an 11-0 run to take a 60-50 advantage. FHSU scored the final six points with UNK forward Ethan Brozek (20 points, six rebounds) on the bench with his fourth foul.

Defensively, FHSU limited the Lopers to 39 percent shooting. In the first meeting, UNK shot 53 percent.

"Every year you play Kearney, it's an easy scout," Johnson said.

"They don't overcomplicate it. They put their best players in position and give their best players the ball and tell them to go make plays. ... I thought our guys did a good job of just manning up and being tough and trying to guard their man."

In the first half, Stoppel collected 11 points, mainly on short jumpers. He and senior forward Andrew Victoria (eight points) helped replace senior forward Dwayne Brunson who had foul trouble and finished with six points.

"He is usually always open for some reason," Nicholson said. "I don't know why. I guess they don't think he can shoot, but I know he always can shoot. I just found him open today. I wasn't trying to force anything, just make the simple pass."

In the second half, Stoppel flashed several times to the basket, including a conventional 3-point play during the 11-0 run.

"They have really been pushing hard on Dwayne and staying out on our shooters, so just rip through their guy and go to the hole," Stoppel said.

UNK, led by 22 points and eight rebounds from senior forward Mike Dentlinger, closed to 68-66 with 3:55 remaining. The Lopers had a chance to tie with 3:04 left, but junior point guard Davion Pearson missed a layup early in the shot clock.

On the next possession, Stoppel passed up an open 18-footer early in the shot clock. FHSU milked the clock and Stoppel eventually hit a shorter jumper off a Nicholson pass.

"At Washburn, we were always rushing our shots," Nicholson said, referring to Wednesday's loss. "It was important against Kearney to just take our time and find the open shot. We were either going to get the open shot or we were going to get fouled."

Brozek missed another shot early in the shot clock. Then, Nicholson bumped the lead to 73-68 with 62 seconds left. With his left hand, Nicholson drove past several Lopers, picked up Brozek's fifth foul, made a layup and made a foul shot.

"Speed and quickness is hard to handle and that's definitely what he has," Johnson said.

UNK cut it to three again, but two foul shots from junior James Fleming and a missed Loper 3 early in the shot clock helped secure the win.

"We were definitely ready for them to come back here," Nicholson said.

Fort Hays 78

Neb-Kearney 72

NEBRASKA-KEARNEY (12-12, 8-9)

Mike Dentlinger 6-12 8-8 22, Ethan Brozek 6-11 8-9 20, Davion Pearson 3-12 3-4 11, Beranke 1-5 4-4 6, Dineen 1-4 3-3 5, Thomas -4 0-0 4, Shields 1-2 0-0 3, Glidden 0-1 1-2 1. Totals --  20-51 27-30 72.

FORT HAYS (21-5, 12-5)

Jake Stoppel 8-11 4-4 18, Craig Nicholson 4-11 9-10 17, Carson Konrade 3-7 2-2 10, James Fleming 3-8 7-8 13, Brunson 3-4 0-0 6, Gabric 1-4 0-0 2, Moikobu 0-1 2-2 2, Tadlock 1-4 0-0 2, Victoria 4-5 0-0 8. Totals -- 26-55 24-26 78.

UNK 36 36 --  72

Fort Hays 41 37 -- 78

3-point goals --  UNK 5-13 (Beranek 0-2, Dentlinger 2-2, Pearson 2-5, Dineen 0-3, Shields 1-1); FHSU 2-10 (Konrade 2-4, Gabric 0-2, Moikobu 0-1, Fleming 0-3). Assists --  UNK 10 (Brozek 3); FHSU 12 (Nicholson 7). Steals -- UNK 7 (Beranek 3); FHSU 10 (Brunson 3, Nicholson 3). Blocks -- UNK 3 (Brozek 2); FHSU 2 (Stoppel, Brunson). Total fouls --  UNK 21, FHSU 25. Fouled out -- Brozek, UNK; Stoppel, FHSU.

Rebounds --  UNK 30 (Dentlinger 8); FHSU 32 (Stoppel 8). Turnovers --  UNK 13, FHSU 11. A -- 4,184.