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Tiger women roll past Bethany in another tune-up

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Fort Hays State University senior guard Melissa Nelson injured her knee in a preseason exhibition game against Kansas State University before the 2010-11 season. She took a medical redshirt and missed the year to rehab.

Last winter, Nelson experienced an up-and-down season. For the first time, she had to come off the bench. She collected 6.4 points, 1.6 rebounds and 21 steals for the 20-9 Tigers. Nelson wasn't fully healthy until April. In a practice, she drove and noticed a little quicker step.

"I am sure it was a gradual process, but I just noticed it one day, and it was nice," Nelson said.

This winter, Nelson is a healthier, better player and delivered a strong performance in an 82-37 victory against Bethany College on Tuesday night at Gross Memorial Coliseum.

"You have not seen it," fifth-year coach Tony Hobson said of the 2012-13 version of Nelson. "She is just working herself now into playing shape. She has got a motor that doesn't stop."

Nelson, in the starting lineup this year, finished 1-of-6 shooting for six points, but collected two assists and three steals, tied for her career-high. She delivered several terrific defensive plays, including a five-second defensive call early in the game and a hustle play after intermission. Fort Hays moved to 2-0, while Bethany used the game as an exhibition and remained at 1-4. The Tigers will have their first contest against a NCAA Division II school when they host Newman University on Saturday afternoon.

"She is a kid who goes hard every play in practice everyday and that really isn't that unique on our team, because we have got a lot of them that do," Hobson said. "I am really happy for Mel, because she looks like she is really enjoying the game again. Last year was a grind for her."

In two games this season, Nelson has collected 15 points and six steals in 39 minutes.

"My knee is definitely a lot better this year in the weight room, and summer and workouts, just getting stronger," Nelson said. "Plus, there is a sense of urgency because it's my last season and I want to help the team get as far as they can go."

Offensively, Fort Hays was inconsistent for the second straight contest. In the two games this season, McPherson and Bethany often played zone versus FHSU. On Tuesday, Fort Hays missed some open looks, shot 45 percent from the field and 17 percent from 3-point range. Sophomore center Kate Lehman paced the Tigers with 16 points, all but two in the second half.

"We don't have any experience playing like that, so it takes us a little bit longer to figure it out," Nelson said. "Two years experience in the MIAA, nobody plays zone, so I don't think he is worried about it. I think it's OK."

Last year, Lehman averaged 3.8 fouls per 40 minutes and rarely was in foul trouble. However, she picked up two quick fouls and played just six first half minutes. Still, Fort Hays held the Swedes to 23 percent shooting before intermission. Eddings led Bethany with 10 points. Senior Tasha Wagoner, from Colby, collected six points. Junior Eastin Casey, a Natoma graduate, has no points and two assists in six minutes. Fort Hays led 8-7 with 12:19 left in the first half, but led 33-13 at the break.

"I was pleased defensively for the most part," Hobson said. "... We have the ability to pressure on the perimeter because we have got pretty good quickness. Mel and Traci (Keyser) are improving defensively."

Sophomore Keriann Shaw, known for her defense, collected a game-high eight rebounds and played some at the power forward, or 4 position, when Lehman sat.

"In practice, nobody likes to have her guard them, because she doesn't ever take a play off," Hobson said. "Her positioning is excellent on the backside. Just a very good defensive player."

In practice, Hobson sees senior guard Kaiameka Brown, freshman guard Taylor Chandler, junior forward Kate Edwards and Nelson always leading the sprints. Shaw is close behind.

"We have four of them that can't beat each other," Hobson said.

With 18:23 remaining in the second half, Fort Hays had a defensive breakdown. Bethany junior Heather Eddings delivered a long pass to senior forward Tanya Garner, who dribbled down the left side of the court and appeared to have an open layup. Instead, Nelson flew in from the right side and forced a missed layup.

"You saw some good closing speed," Hobson said. "She never would have gotten there last year. That's just the difference. She is playing with confidence. I think you are just going to see her get better as the year goes along."