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Fort Hays men pull away for win

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

The Fort Hays State University men's basketball team is the lone MIAA squad that has four players listed among the conference's top-30 scorers. The Tigers place four in top-24 and have a fifth, junior Carson Konrade, just outside the rankings.

However, no player averages more than 16 points per contest. But the Tigers' depth, plus the 3-point shooting of senior guard Ben Congiusta and the passing of freshman point guard Craig Nicholson, has helped Fort Hays tally at least 77 points in all but one contest this season.

On Saturday, FHSU again delivered a big offensive showing in an 85-60 non-conference victory against South Dakota School of Mines at Gross Memorial Coliseum.

Congiusta led the team with 16 points on four treys, all in the second half. Junior Dwayne Brunson, the team's leading scorer, finished with 14 points and a team-high 10 rebounds. Senior Lance Russell had 14 points, while Nicholson had 12 points, eight assists and just two turnovers. Konrade overcame a thigh issue that nearly kept him from playing and finished with six points in 16 minutes.

"There is some variety there," coach Mark Johnson said. "We have got some guys that can shoot the basketball. We have got some guys that can drive it. Even Carson is crafty. He is not just a shooter. Carson is kind of a scorer. Lance is doing a better job this year of finding other ways to score besides shooting it, offensive rebounding. Dwayne can post it, he can also step away."

The offense helped Fort Hays overcome a flagrant foul and a technical foul in the first half.

FHSU, in its first game after the holiday break, won its sixth straight contest and moved to 8-2. Mines, a NCAA Division II provisional school, dropped to 8-4. FHSU led 38-25 at halftime, but pushed its lead to 34 with 4 minutes, 7 seconds left in the game in the first-ever contest between the two schools.

"The first 14 minutes of the game, we looked like a team that had nine days off that practiced twice," Johnson said. "A little sloppy and we missed some shots. ... Didn't finish around the goal like we needed to. But more than that, I think South Dakota Mines is a scrappy team, tough, little group of guys, and I thought they outoughed us the first 14 minutes."

Entering the contest, FHSU averaged 81 points per contest and ranked 33rd nationally in 3-point field goal percentage (40.4) and 38th in field goal percentage (48.3). Congiusta stood 22nd in 3-point field goal percentage (47.8), while Nicholson ranked 11th in assists per game (6.6).

"It's great knowing that you've got guys coming off the bench, and they can contribute as much as the starters can," Nicholson said. "It's real big when you know you can count on the next man when they come in the game."

Congiusta missed all three of his 3-point attempts in the first half, but hit four in the first 11 minutes after intermission.

"It's great when you have got a guy that you can count on making it every single time," Nicholson said. "I am not used to it. I am still getting used to it."

Nicholson delivered another solid contest and finished with several highlight reel plays.

Midway through the second half, Nicholson drove down the right lane, drew the defense and flipped a pass to junior Andrew Victoria in the lane for an easy basket. Later in the contest, Nicholson picked up the ball after a FHSU block, dribbled straight down the court and scored against a defender.

"Every time I penetrate, I am always looking to see who is open," Nicholson said. "Because I know most of the time, I am not going to able to have a wide-open layup with guys taller than me. I am usually the smallest one on the court (at 5-foot-8), so I am just trying to get my teammates involved."

Fort Hays will travel to MIAA newcomer Northeastern State (Okla.) University on Thursday night. Then, the Tigers will travel to Emporia State University on Saturday.

"I think both of the teams that we are getting ready to face are probably going to finish top-five teams in the league," Johnson said. "Definitely Northeastern. So we are going to have to go on the road, and probably have to play as good of basketball as we have all year if we want to have success."