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Tigers begin final stretch

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

For years, Fort Hays State University played every team in the league during the first half of the MIAA season. Then the Tigers played every team again in the second half of the slate. When the season finished, FHSU had faced each conference team home and away.

Because of the pod system this year, the schedule has changed. FHSU plays each of the 14 other MIAA squads one time. In addition, it plays the four teams in its pod, Northwest Missouri State University, University of Nebraska-Kearney, Washburn University and Missouri Western State University, both home and away.

"It's a goofy schedule for one year," coach Tony Hobson said in his weekly news conference Monday.

Last week, FHSU faced Northwest Missouri and UNK at home. This week, the Tigers play Wednesday at Northwest Missouri and Saturday at UNK.

Then in the following two weeks, Fort Hays will have its rematches versus Washburn and Missouri Western.

"It's just different," Hobson said. "I don't know what else you would do. In the pod system, you are going to have some of that happen, it just does, and it's worse for some people. Kearney plays us two times in a row, because they have a bye week on Wednesday. Does it make a big difference? Probably not. It's just a little strange."

Fort Hays concluded a 4-0 homestand Saturday with a big victory versus Nebraska-Kearney.

The Tigers stand at 16-5, 8-5 MIAA with five contests left. Northwest Missouri is at 11-10, 5-8 MIAA. Game time is 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in Maryville, Mo.

The Bearcats are the lone MIAA team that routinely plays zone and has no post players that often take 3-pointers, which means Fort Hays could play sophomore center Kate Lehman and junior forward Tera Ingalsbe together. Lehman stands fourth in the MIAA at 15.6 points per contest, while sophomore center Maggie Marnin paces Northwest with 11.4 points per contest.

"This is the first time we have played somebody the second time this year, so you don't know how your team is going to react," Hobson said. "It's kind of different, because usually the last half of the season in conference, you have had nine or 10 repeat games."

If FHSU had the same record on the men's side, it would be a game out of first. However, the Tigers stand in sixth place -- and are 1-4 versus the teams above them in the standings.

"We are going to have a hard time getting in the top-four with the way the schedule is set, and considering three of the teams that we are battling for that position, we have lost to on the road and we don't play them again," Hobson said. "We would lose the tiebreaker. It's a total different dynamic than the men's side. If we were on the men's side with our record or one game better, we would be second, third. We are really top-loaded this year,"

Even if the Tigers win out, FHSU will have a difficult time earning a top-four seed and first-round bye to the MIAA conference tournament, something Hobson isn't really concerned with.

"We feel like we can beat anybody in the conference and when it comes down to tournament time, is it that big of a deal if you play a Tuesday game (instead of a bye) before a Friday game?," Hobson said. "Eh, not necessarily. We are not really going to worry about it at this time."

Fort Hays received a breakout performance from senior Traci Keyser in Saturday's victory versus the Lopers. Keyser, a four-year player, moved to the bench in early January. She tallied a season-high 24 points in 24 minutes, including five 3-pointers. Entering the contest, Keyser, top 10 on several career statistical lists with the Tigers, was averaging 5.5 points per contest this season. Hobson said the team was happy for Keyser, a player who is well respected on the squad.

"I love playing with these girls and these coaches," Keyser said. "It's been a blessing here."

This season, Keyser has averaged 6.4 points and 2.3 rebounds per contest and shot 30.4 percent from 3-point range. Last year, she averaged 9.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and shot 31.5 percent from long range on a team that finished 20-9. As a sophomore, Keyser collected all-MIAA honorable mention honors when she averaged a team-high 11.2 points per contest, 3.5 rebounds and shot 39.5 percent from the floor for a 12-14 squad.

"I don't think it's been as erratic as what it would seem just by looking at stats," Hobson said. "... I think she has probably been a little more consistent than what we have given her credit for."