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Tigers set for Mules, Jennies

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

The Fort Hays State University men's basketball team's framework is built around sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson, a strong offensive player who pushes the pace and distributes. Down low, senior Dwayne Brunson has produced at a high rate for two years. Then the Tigers have multiple players who can shoot effectively; FHSU has shot 47 percent from 3-point range en route to a 7-0 start and No. 15 ranking in NCAA Division II.

On Thursday, the Tigers open conference play at the University of Central Missouri. Start time is 5:30 p.m. for the women, 7:30 p.m. for the men in Warrensburg, Mo. All four teams are ranked or receiving votes nationally and finished in the top six in the MIAA last season. It will be the only regular season matchup between the squads.

On the men's side, FHSU coach Mark Johnson called UCM "a mirror image" of the Tigers. Senior point guard Daylen Robinson, a transfer from NCAA Division I Texas Tech, is quick and athletic and plays quickly. The Mules average 40 percent from 3-point range and have three players who can shoot well. Junior forward/center Dillon Deck is back healthy and leads the team at 10.5 points per game for the 6-1 Mules.

"It's the closest team we have played to kind of being ourselves," Johnson said.

Brunson paces the team with 19.9 points and 10 rebounds, while Nicholson averages 15.4 points with a team-high 65 assists. Sophomore forward Jake Stoppel has missed the last three games with an ankle sprain.

Stoppel practiced Monday. Johnson said senior forward Andrew Victoria "has softened the blow" of losing Stoppel. Victoria, long bothered by knee problems, laid off the knee and didn't play two games. He responded with his best game, 10 points and nine rebounds, last Saturday against Sterling.

However, Stoppel and junior Tomislav Gabric are the Tigers' most versatile defenders and can guard big men who shoot the 3 and can play inside. Many MIAA power forwards, or 4 men, have those traits.

FHSU and Central Missouri have been the MIAA's top teams during the last six years. Last season, the Tigers and Mules played once, in the league opener in Hays. FHSU won 77-72 and eventually finished 13-5 in league play. The Tigers won the title because of tiebreaker over the Mules.

Fort Hays has won two in a row against Central, but both have come in Hays. The Tigers are 1-5 all-time in Warrensburg, with the lone victory coming in 2009-10 when UCM was ranked No. 1 in the country. The Mules have won 16 straight home contests and is 126-11 at home in the last nine years.

Through seven games, FHSU has played four away from home, including three at neutral site contests.

While some coaches believe in a strong early season slate, Johnson says it's "a little bit overrated."

However, Johnson does believe the traveling aspect - riding in a bus, staying at a hotel - does help his squad prepare for the MIAA road slate.

"I guess it can prepare you sometimes," Johnson said. "I don't think it means as much as maybe we all put stock into it. I think it's more about your team in the preseason and getting better and improving.

"I think it's really about winning games," he added. "I would much rather play a soft schedule and be 7-0 going into Central than play a grueling schedule and be 2-5 and your team doubting what you are doing."

Women set for rematch

On Dec. 5 of last year, the Tigers opened a home game against University of Central Missouri on a 34-1 run and collected a 95-50 victory. Just over three months later, the season ended against the Mules. FHSU had trouble with foul shooting and lost 87-78 in overtime in the MIAA conference tournament semifinals, a loss that ended the Tigers' NCAA hopes.

On Monday, senior forward Tera Ingalsbe sat on a couch in the Tiger coaches' office and gritted her teeth. FHSU stands at 5-0, while the Jennies are 6-1 and ranked No. 8 in NCAA Division II. Keuna Flax leads UCM at 20.4 points per game.

"I am just antsy and ready to play them," Ingalsbe said. "I just want the game to be tomorrow."

Guards Shelby Winkelmann and BreAnna Lewis average 12.3 points per contest.

"They seem to improve a lot as the season progresses," FHSU coach Tony Hobson said. "Part of that is because they always have a lot of new kids, because they go heavy on the transfer route and things like that. So, part of that is just getting everybody worked in and getting them working together."