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Big win for FHSU men

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Coach Mark Johnson has never labeled his Fort Hays State University men's basketball team a soft group. Instead, Johnson has called his group "cardiac kids," a team that has come back from multiple deficits this season, especially with key offensive plays near the end.

However, on Wednesday, Fort Hays delivered a tough, gritty effort in a 59-58, last-second victory against Northwest Missouri State University at Gross Memorial Coliseum. Bearcat junior Bryston Williams caromed a jumper off the rim as the buzzer sounded to secure the win -- and send a raucous crowd of 2,109 fans into a standing ovation.

"I was just happy that the game was over and that Fort Hays was on top," junior Dwayne Brunson said while wearing a big smile.

Fort Hays trailed by nine with 7 minutes, 40 seconds remaining and came within one point of its season-low for offense.

"We found a way to score just enough to win the game," Johnson said.

The Tigers collected a win that Johnson called "the biggest game of the year" and stayed in the hunt for a league title.

FHSU moved into a tie for second place, a game out of first, at 14-6, 8-4 MIAA. Northwest Missouri dropped to 15-6, 8-4 MIAA.

"We showed some grittiness and we got back into the game with our defense and getting stops and pressurizing them a little harder," Johnson said.

Northwest and Fort Hays represented two statistical extremes. In conference-only statistics, the Bearcats stand first in scoring defense and 13th in scoring offense. The Bearcats had won their previous two games by one point apiece - and also won a game in early January by one in overtime. Three times, Northwest had won a contest scoring under 60 points. The Bearcats average just 64 possessions a game, easily the lowest in the league.

FHSU had tallied at least 74 points in all of its wins and, while it has several close victories, was 1-4 in games decided by three points or fewer, including a one-point home loss to Washburn University.

"The last two times, they got breaks," Johnson said. "This time, we got the break. Sometimes in our league, that's what it comes down to. Washburn, they got the break, and we didn't. Tonight, we got the break and Northwest didn't. When you are in a league like this, that's what's going to happen, for the most part. The last possession, last minute."

Before Wednesday, FHSU ranked fourth or better in conference-only statistics in scoring offense, free throw percentage, field goal percentage and 3-point field goal percentage. The Tigers stood seventh or worse in the 15-team league in scoring defense, field goal percentage defense and 3-point field goal defense.

In pregame, Johnson's biggest concern was FHSU's offense and whether it could have few turnovers and keep Northwest Missouri from easy transition baskets.

"Northwest, they don't really let you run your stuff," Johnson said. "You have got to beat them through motion and through freelance and things like that. We don't really have a freelance team."

Johnson thought Northwest Missouri would try to limit seniors Ben Congiusta and Lance Russell, two players who finished a combined 3 of 6 for eight points. Brunson collected 23 points and eight rebounds, while freshman Craig Nicholson -- arguably the Tigers' top two offensive players -- delivered 13 points and nine assists in 39 minutes. Fort Hays finished with 19 turnovers; they were 0-2 when recording more than 19 turnovers this year. Senior DeAngelo Hailey led Northwest with 23 points.

"We played poorly," Johnson said. "We had a lot of guys who didn't play well, and I think Northwest Missouri deserves a lot of credit for that, but we played poorly and still found a way to win."

Fort Hays trailed 53-44 with seven and a half minutes left before it went on a 10-0 run. FHSU had several poor passes that landed well out of bounds.

"Some guys had their feelings hurt out there," Johnson said. "A little embarrassed throwing it all over the gym."

Junior Carson Konrade started the run with two free throws. FHSU tried to isolate Nicholson and Brunson on one side of the floor to create offense. Nicholson found Brunson at the foul line for a jumper. Next, Nicholson worked around the Northwest defense in the half court and found Brunson for another basket.

"That's my go-to guy," Brunson said. "Me and him got that little connection. I have the feel for him on the court."

Nicholson passed to senior center Rundell Mauge for a basket and capped the run when he had a screen, drove down the right side and scored on a layup. During the surge, FHSU's defense forced five Bearcat turnovers.

"When they separated (the score), I felt like our big guys did a poor job of stopping the ball and not hedging like we needed to, and then after that, I felt like the difference was, Dwayne and Rundell did a tremendous job of getting out there and being active and putting pressure on their guards coming off those screens, allowed us to have some turnovers," Johnson said.

With 70 seconds left, Russell made his only shot off the game with a 3-pointer for the left wing for the game's final points.

"If that's all he had to do to help us win the game, then I am glad he took it," Brunson said.

NWMSU and FHSU each missed foul shots in the final 39 seconds and the Bearcats had a chance to win a game at the buzzer. Johnson thought Williams' shot was going to fall. Instead, it bounced off and the Tigers earned a win in a different way.

"Tonight, it was a cardiac effort, but I think it had more to do with us just really being tough," Johnson said.