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Tiger men drop road game

By CONOR NICHOLL
cnicholl@dailynews.net

TOPEKA – The Fort Hays State University men’s basketball team committed 19 turnovers, 11 more than Washburn University. The Tigers had 24 fouls, including two intentional, six more than Washburn. The Ichabods finished with a 30-18 advantage in free throw attempts.

Washburn senior Will McNeill, a returning All-American, hit several off-balance, magnificent shots and finished with a game-high 28 points. Fort Hays, though, managed to keep the game close behind terrific long range shooting. The Tigers went 10 of 21 from 3-point range, including a team-best 20 points (6 of 9 from 3) from senior guard Ben Congiusta.

However, the turnovers, fouls and McNeill proved too much. Fort Hays saw its seven-game winning streak end in a critical loss, 76-70, on Saturday night at Lee Arena.

“We turned it over too many times,” Tiger coach Mark Johnson said. “When you turn it over 19 times, it leads to a lot of transition baskets for your opponent. I didn’t think we could come here and win and give up 76 points. I thought it was going to have to be in the 60s for us to have an opportunity to win. Maybe we could have done that, especially if you take away some of those turnovers.”

Fort Hays, first in the MIAA and eighth in the first Central Region rankings released Wednesday, dropped to 17-7, 11-5 MIAA.

“I thought we gave effort the whole game, and I thought we did well, and I thought we gave ourselves a chance to win,” Congiusta said. “Washburn is a great team and they just edged it out at the end.”

Washburn improved to 18-6, 11-5 MIAA and won the season series versus the Tigers – a sweep that could prove critical in seeding for the postseason conference tournament and NCAA tournament positioning. The regular season concludes next week with two home games for the Tigers, the first Wednesday versus Missouri Western State University. FHSU can still win the league title outright, but now can’t control its own destiny.

“Obviously winning tonight would have taken a big step in the right direction,” Congiusta said. “We lost tonight, so we’ve got to move on and try to finish off the next two home games strong, and hopefully things will go in our favor and we can finish with that (first-place) designation, but we have to see how things go.”

McNeill, a first team all-league player last season, entered Saturday averaging 17.9 points per game. However, Johnson believed McNeill hadn't matched last winter when he scored 20.2 points per contest. McNeill has scored in double figures every game, but Saturday yielded his high for a conference game this year.

“He played to me like he played last year,” Johnson said.

Just before halftime, McNeill hit an off-balance jumper to give Washburn a 35-31 lead entering the break. With 16 minutes, 7 seconds left, Fort Hays senior center Rundell Mauge collected an intentional foul on a controversial call on Ichabod senior Bobby Chipman. It was Mauge’s fourth foul, he eventually played 22 minutes before fouling out. McNeill hit a free throw to give Washburn a 40-36 lead.

The Ichabods extended the lead to 42-36 when McNeill stole the ball from Congiusta on the left side. McNeill dribbled down court, but Congiusta came back to defend. Instead of going up for a shot, McNeill paced back to senior Joseph Smith, who made a layup.

“Obviously, he is a great player,” Congiusta said of McNeill. “Obviously, his main attributes are his strength and his athleticism.”

Later, a deflected pass led to a McNeill steal dunk and a 47-42 lead with 13:34 left. At that point, FHSU had 17 turnovers, while Washburn had just five. The Ichabods contained freshman point guard Craig Nicholson, who finished with 11 points, five assists and five turnovers.

“They are a big, strong, physical team,” Johnson said. “That gives anybody problems. They probably athletically can match up with Craig in the backcourt as well as anybody in our conference, and very few guys athletically can match up with Craig from an athletic standpoint.

“William McNeil, Martin Mitchell, Kyle Wiggins all have close to that athleticism, and they were making him a focal point to try to get him contained in transition,” he added. “…They didn’t really let him get loose out on the open court, which is when he is at his best.”

McNeill kept providing offense, too. Arguably his most remarkable play came with 11:25 left. Guarded by Congiusta, McNelll lost his footing just inside the top of the perimeter. With the ball on the ground, McNeill put his hands on the ball and turned around. Then, he immediately stood up and hit a long jumper.

“Most of the time, I was in front of him, but when he pulls up and fades away, he gets so high on his shot that it’s really hard to challenge his shot,” Congiusta said. “You just do the best that you can.”

Paced by Congiusta and junior Carson Konrade (15 points on 4 3s), FHSU came back to take a 59-58 lead on a Congiusta jumper. Washburn regained the lead and Konrade hit another jumper to keep it at 68-65 with 1:48 left. But McNeill bumped the lead to five points.

“When their best player plays like that on their home floor, it’s hard to come in and win,” Johnson said. “I thought he hit tough shot after tough shot."