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Fort Hays men drop close one

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

With 23 seconds left, the Fort Hays State University men's basketball team led Northwestern Oklahoma State University by two points. Junior forward Dwayne Brunson, the Tigers' leading scorer and rebounder, fouled out when he fouled NWOSU senior forward Jonathan Freemyer.

Freemyer made the first free throw to cut the Tigers' lead to one. Then, he missed the second. However, junior guard Eze Akwari grabbed the offensive rebound for the Rangers.

He missed a shot, but Freemyer collected the rebound and was fouled.

"We didn't get in and block out," FHSU coach Mark Johnson said. "We didn't get physical. It's winning time. That just can't happen."

This time, Freemyer made both of his foul shots and NWOSU took the lead with 19.4 seconds left. Fort Hays never came back and suffered a rare early season loss, 70-68, on Saturday at Gross Memorial Coliseum. Freshman point guard Craig Nicholson missed a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.

"We have so many new guys," Johnson said. "We are going to have bumps in the road. It's how we come out of it and respond."

Paced by 20 points from the physical Freemyer, NWOSU shot 46 percent from the field and forced 20 Tiger turnovers. Brunson, who paced the Tigers with 22 points and 10 rebounds, and senior center Rundell Mauge both fouled out.

"I thought they played really hard and physical for 40 minutes," Johnson said. "They really made it hard on us. We just didn't handle the physicalness of the game very well. We had way too many turnovers."

The Rangers, transitioning to NCAA Division II, improved to 1-2. Fort Hays dropped to 2-1.

"They were probably the most physical team," senior guard Lance Russell said of the Tigers' three opponents. "We've got to get better with that. They came out playing hard."

It marked the Tigers' earliest loss to a non-Division I team since a 73-65 defeat in the 2007-08 season opener -- a year where FHSU still made the NCAA tournament. After a week off for Thanksgiving, Fort Hays will play at Newman University next Saturday.

"We are going to get better," Russell said. "This isn't going to stop us. We are going to learn from it, get back together. We are going to win Saturday."

Fort Hays trailed 30-28 at halftime before it took a 42-39 lead. However, the Rangers went on an 11-0 run and led 50-42 with 11:12 left in the contest. FHSU came back on a 14-5 run and led 56-55 with 7:06 left on a Mauge steal that led to a layup from senior guard Ben Congiusta.

The Tigers never could pull away.

"We really struggled offensively at times," Johnson said. "I just felt like every time it was getting ready to be in our momentum. ... They would make a great play, a big play for them, or we would just do something silly on our end. Frustrating, disappointing."

In its first two games, NWOSU lost twice on the road, but by close margins. The Rangers fell 81-69 to Rogers State (Okla.) and then fell 78-73 to Northeastern (Okla.) State University, a MIAA newcomer. Freemyer averages 18 points and eight rebounds a contest, while senior point guard Daryl Glover has collected 14 points a game, and senior guard Marshall Bell averages 10 points a contest. Versus FHSU, the trio combined for 48 points.

"They outplayed us," Johnson said. "Their three best players outplayed our guys, and give them a lot of credit."

Brunson gave Fort Hays a 68-66 lead with 48 seconds left after a Nicholson miss when he jumped and delivered a 1-handed putback for the score. Freemyer's free throws and the Rangers' offensive rebounds helped NWOSU take the lead in the final seconds.

Freemyer went 3-of-4 from the line and the Tigers trailed 69-68 with 19.4 seconds remaining. Fort Hays had an opportunity to take the lead, but was out of timeouts. FHSU called "1-4 low," but Nicholson turned the ball over with eight seconds left.

"He got put in the fire as a freshman," Johnson said. "Hopefully, he will learn from this. I know he is a competitive kid. Next time, he will be able to handle it. "

Fort Hays fouled Akwari, who made the first of two foul shots. Junior Marty Wendel grabbed the rebound, but Nicholson's shot from the top of the key went off the back iron as the buzzer sounded.