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Tiger men restore balance in conference opener; road game up next

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

The Fort Hays State University men's basketball team was expected to have plenty of big men when the year started. However, 6-foot-6 junior guard Tomislav Gabric is out for the year because of transfer issues from Palm Beach State (Fla.) Community College. Then, 6-8 junior forward Andrew Victoria couldn't play until Wednesday night because of a knee injury.

Junior forward Dwayne Brunson (6-7, 220 pounds) and senior center Rundell Mauge (7-foot, 220 pounds) have started and played well when they've been on the court, but both have had continued foul trouble. Without an assortment of Gabric, Victoria, Brunson and Mauge, FHSU becomes small quickly.

FHSU restored some balance in a critical 77-72 home victory against UCM at Gross Memorial Coliseum. Victoria, cleared just hours before the game, played just four minutes, but had four key points. He helped spell Brunson and Mauge -- who combined for seven fouls-- and kept FHSU with a big presence.

"If one of them is in foul trouble, one of them can still be out there and help us," coach Mark Johnson said.

With Victoria, Brunson can stay at the four, or power forward position. Senior guard Lance Russell can play the 3, or small forward. Without a big presence, Russell has to play an undersized 4. Plus, senior guard Ben Congiusta is a solid presence at the 2, or shooting guard.

"We can put a big lineup up there whether it be Rundell and Andrew at the 5 (center) and Dwayne at the 4, that's a big 3, 4 and 5 at our level," Johnson said. "I think Ben is a good, sturdy (player) -- he is not a tall 2 guard -- but he is a strong 2 guard. We can matchup physically with whoever we play."

On Saturday, Fort Hays (4-2, 1-0 MIAA) will travel to Missouri Western State University (4-3, 0-1 MIAA). Game time is 3:30 p.m. in St. Joseph, Mo. This week, MWSU coach Tom Smith announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season.

Smith is in his 38th season as a head coach, including 25th at Missouri Western. He has won more than 600 career games and is the conference's all-time winningest coach. Junior forward Cedric Clinkscales is the lone Griffon averaging double figures at 15.3 a game.

Senior Dylan Frantz, a Phillipsburg High School graduate, has started every game and averages 4.4 points a contest.

For the Tigers, four players average in double figures, including 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds, both team-highs, from Brunson. Russell has tacked on 13 points a game and played 40 minutes in a contest for the first time Wednesday. Congiusta has averaged 12 points a contest with a 24/12 assist/turnover ratio. Russell and Congiusta are the lone players who have seen significant playing time before this winter.

"That's what seniors and senior returners do for your team and right now, they are doing a great job," Johnson said.

Nelson continues to play well

Senior guard Melissa Nelson had another stat-filling night for the Tiger women in FHSU's 95-50 victory Wednesday night against Central Missouri. The team's third-leading scorer this year at 9.7 points per game, Nelson collected 10 points, two assists, two rebounds and two steals in 20 minutes. She finished 4 of 10 from the field and 2 of 4 from 3-point range.

"She is just playing with so much confidence right now," Central Missouri coach Dave Slifer said.

This season, Nelson has averaged 25 minutes a game, second-most on the squad, and has upped her numbers across the board from last year. She has 19 steals, a 15/5 assist to turnover ratio and three rebounds a contest.

Last year, Nelson was still recovering from a knee injury and had 21 steals, a 25/34 assist/turnover ratio, 6.4 points and 1.6 rebounds a game in 16.8 minutes a contest.

"I love playing with Mel," sophomore center Kate Lehman said. "She can pass and she can shoot and can dribble. She is a triple threat. If she is not hitting a shot, then she will drive in and score. She knows when to shoot and when to pass, I think is one of her best strengths. She had a great game."