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Tiger men gut out big win in MIAA

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

The Fort Hays State University men's basketball team struggled early this season with two rare non-conference losses and a nearly brand-new squad. The defeats came against Newman University, 7-0 with three wins against MIAA teams, and Northwestern Oklahoma State University, 3-4 but with three losses by a combined 14 points.

"Our guys had to play some tough games early," Tiger coach Mark Johnson said.

One positive was the spacing of games. The Tigers played NWOSU on Nov. 17 and then had a week off before they played Newman. Three days later, they earned a blowout win versus NAIA Central Christian College. After that, Fort Hays had another week to practice before the conference opener against University of Central Missouri on Wednesday night.

The stretches between contests has allowed FHSU to learn, grow and improve -- and led to a well-played 77-72 victory at Gross Memorial Coliseum. Fort Hays played well throughout the contest against the rival Mules, picked second in the league in the preseason coaches' and media polls.

"Continued to get into that practice and get better and better," Johnson said. "More so than anything too, we are gaining some confidence a little bit. We need some more guys to continue to step up and the more comfortable they get, we have the potential to be a solid basketball team."

The entire contest was played within 10 points and wasn't decided until the final 10 seconds. However, FHSU never trailed by more than two at any time and improved to 4-2, 1-0 MIAA. Central Missouri dropped to 4-2, 0-1 MIAA. It was the fourth time in the last six meetings and second in a row the perennial powers played to within seven points.

"We lost a couple of really close games, which has really hurt us," Tiger senior guard Ben Congiusta said. "We showed that we can come away with a close one here tonight. We really showed some good signs tonight. I am really happy with the guys."

Fort Hays had some foul trouble again with junior forward Dwayne Brunson and senior center Rundell Mauge. The two combined for 16 points, nine rebounds and seven fouls in 39 minutes. However, the Tigers saw significant improvements in several key areas, played well in a rarely used zone and had big nights from multiple players.

"We really had to play our best to come out with a win, so it was just a huge game for us," Congiusta said.

Entering the contest, Fort Hays had shot 65.8 percent on free throws, allowed 12.2 offensive rebounds a contest and committed 16.6 turnovers a game. Versus Central Missouri, Fort Hays went 11 of 13 (85 percent) from the free throw line, allowed four offensive rebounds and committed just 13 turnovers. Johnson said, because of the inexperience, FHSU's goal is between 12 and 15 turnovers.

Freshman Craig Nicholson finished with a career-best 22 points and seven assists, both game-highs. Johnson called the point guard "the best player on the floor."

"We have got a lot of confidence in Craig," said Congiusta, who collected 14 points, six assists and just one turnover. "He has got a lot of confidence and a lot of good moves, and he can play."

Senior Lance Russell played 40 minutes for the first time in his career and finished with 12 points and eight rebounds. Without junior guard Tomislav Gabric (transfer issues) for the season, Russell is the Tigers' lone big guard. Central Missouri had several big guards, including Reggie Stallings. He led the Mules with 19 points and hit six 3s.

"Lance just had to be out there," Johnson said.

Johnson doesn't like zone, but FHSU ran it for nearly the entire contest. Central Missouri hit 11 3s, but shot 46 percent.

"I thought it was semi-effective, but more than anything, just to stay out of foul trouble," Johnson said.

Junior center Andrew Victoria, out all season with a knee injury, hadn't practiced in more than a month. He was checked during the women's game and was cleared to play very limited minutes. Victoria had just four minutes, but scored four points, including two key free throws, and provided more size. His two free throws with 4:42 left gave FHSU a 68-67 lead. Fort Hays never lost the lead again.

"Real critical for us, he gives us another option to score inside, allows us to stay big throughout the game," Johnson said.

Fort Hays led 75-72 late, but Central Missouri had a chance to tie the game when Mules junior Charles Hammork collided with Congiusta with 12 seconds left and forced a turnover. With five seconds left, Brunson knocked the ball away from Mule senior Dominique Long. Russell hit two foul shots to seal the victory. As the buzzer sounded, the fanbase let out a big ovation and Congiusta ran over to Brunson near midcourt. The pair jumped high into the air and bumped shoulders to celebrate.

"It was just so important," Congiusta said. "You can't really even describe it. We needed this game."

The Tigers travel to St. Joseph, Mo. on Saturday to take on Missouri Western (4-3, 0-1 MIAA).