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FHSU plays final two games at home

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

The Fort Hays State University men's basketball team started 2-2 this season, one of the worst starts in the 12-year Mark Johnson era. Then, the Tigers opened 4-4 in MIAA play against a difficult, road-heavy slate. FHSU knew the schedule would turn with plenty of home games in the backstretch.

"Would we be able to take advantage of it was a question," Johnson said in his weekly news conference Monday.

The Tigers reeled off seven straight victories before taking a 76-70 road loss to Washburn University on Saturday. Fort Hays, ranked No. 8 in the Central Region rankings last week, dropped to 17-7, 11-5 MIAA. Still, the Tigers remain in the hunt for their first MIAA title with two regular season games left.

"All we can do is take care of ourselves," senior guard Ben Congiusta said.

Fort Hays will host Missouri Western State University (9-15, 5-11 MIAA) on Wednesday at Gross Memorial Coliseum. Game time is 7:30 p.m.

"If we can win both, it's been a really good season, and we are hitting the postseason on a high note and we can still continue to do stuff," Johnson said. "If we don't have success this week, I think it changes a little bit of how you feel about your regular season."

Fort Hays and Missouri Western illustrate the slight difference between the upper tier and lower tier programs. The Tigers pace the league in all three shooting categories, including 3-point field goal percentage (40.6) and free throw percentage (75.9).

"For the year, we've shot free throws very, very good," Johnson said. "I think when you are playing in a league like ours where all the games come down to really close at the end, it's important that you make your free throws. A big key for us winning at Northwest (on Feb. 13) was making our free throws."

The Tigers continue to be on pace to set the school single season record for free throw shooting percentage. They stand fifth (and best in Johnson's tenure) in 3-point field goal percentage.

That's continued a trend under Johnson. Early on his career, FHSU's strength wasn't shooting the outside shot. However, since 2009-10, the Tigers have shot 39.8, 39.4 and 35.9 percent from long range.

"I think we've shot the ball well from 3 probably the last four years," Johnson said. "Probably been a big change. I got tired of watching us never see the ball go in. You think like the first five or six years, we were more athletic, probably guarded better, but had a harder time on offense. We've tried to mix that up a little bit, get some more shooters in there. Consequently, we probably don't guard quite as well early on. But we offensively have been better teams."

The Griffons have lost two overtime games, including a 84-74 Tiger win on Dec. 8 in St. Joseph, Mo. Missouri Western is 3-6 in games decided by six points or fewer or in overtime.

"I think every year you have a team that probably has a record that, if things went their way, they probably could have had a much better year," Johnson said.

Griffon forward Cedric Clinkscales leads Missouri Western with 13.4 points per contest, the lone player who averages double figures.

"Clinkscales is the best back-to-the-basket offensive player in our conference," Johnson said. "We didn't have an answer for him the first time. Most people don't."

Western coach Tom Smith will retire this year after coaching Western for 25 years. He has won more than 600 games and coached more than 900 career contests in a career that spans 36 years.

"He is a great coach, and a really good guy, and has always been nice to me," Johnson said. "I have a ton of respect for what he has done and what his coaching career was and is."

Johnson groups Smith, current Washburn University coach Bob Chipman and recently retired Pittsburg State University coach Gene Iba has coaches he remembers from his playing days at Pittsburg State University in the mid-90s.

"I think sometimes people don't appreciate how good they are because they are at Division II," Johnson said. "But Coach Smith is one of the best coaches there has been."