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Tiger women jump out big, roll to MIAA win

By CONOR NICHOLL
cnicholl@dailynews.net

Fifth-year Fort Hays State University women’s basketball coach Tony Hobson has won more than 450 games in a career that started in 1983. Only one time has he seen a start like the Tigers’ 34-1 opening run against University of Central Missouri on Wednesday night.

However, the competition level was much different than the Jennies, ranked No. 23 in NCAA Division II in the newest coaches’ poll released Tuesday afternoon.

“There was one time at Hastings (Neb. College) that we started out 33-0, but it was against a team that you might have been able to do that again,” Hobson said. “Really, I haven’t ever seen it against an undefeated team that is nationally ranked.”

Early on, Fort Hays played nearly flawless basketball and held Central Missouri without a field goal until 8 minutes, 1 second remained in the first half. FHSU, ranked No. 17 nationally, eventually won 95-50 at Gross Memorial Coliseum in the conference opener.

“Our kids were really just emotionally and physically ready to go,” Hobson said. “It really showed at the start of the game.”

Fort Hays moved to 7-0, 1-0 MIAA, while Central Missouri dropped to 5-1, 0-1 MIAA. FHSU, ranked for the first time since ’96-97, is ranked the highest in the school's NCAA Division II history. Wednesday marked the second time in Tiger annals it was involved in matchup of two ranked squads. FHSU has won every contest this year by at least 20 points.

“I didn’t see that coming,” Tiger sophomore center Kate Lehman said.

Since FHSU joined the MIAA before the '06-07 season, Wednesday marked the Tigers’ most points scored and biggest margin of victory in a conference contest. Fort Hays’ press again wreaked havoc, while Lehman and junior Katelyn Edwards made plays on the inside. Central Missouri coach Dave Slifer, in his 24th season as a head coach, couldn’t recall a team having a start like the Tigers.

“That’s a credit to Fort Hays. I’ll be honest, there are times when we have had bad practices before going into a game, and I have been concerned about it,” Slifer said. “We had a couple of our best practices of the year, and we couldn’t get the ball up the floor. We couldn’t guard them, and then we couldn’t get the ball up the floor after that. We have got a lot of questions right now.”

Central Missouri missed its first 12 shots and committed 13 turnovers. FHSU opened 14 of 20 from the field.

“We had outside shots and I was open inside because they weren’t double-teaming the outside shots,” Lehman said. “When they are hitting like that, no one can stop us. That was a good team. That was a team that we thought we were going to have a struggle with.”

Last March, Central Missouri’s forwards, including Nicole Caddell, gave Lehman problems at the MIAA tournament. Fort Hays lost and saw its season end, while UCM went on to play in the NCAA tournament. The defeat wasLehman’s lone subpar game since Christmas 2011.

“Kicked my butt,” Lehman said.

On Wednesday, Lehman delivered another strong line with 24 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots, all game-highs, with just one foul in 22 minutes. She shot 11 of 15 from the field, while Caddell finished 5-of-15 shooting for 11 points with eight rebounds. Caddell also picked up a technical foul in the second half.

“I didn’t want that to happen again,” Lehman said. “I came out better prepared for her and either I got a lot stronger, or she got a little bit weaker, because she did not feel near as strong as she did last year, and I didn’t get into foul trouble. … If she was on tonight, it would have been a better game, but she missed some easy shots.”

Fort Hays opened on a 4-0 run before Caddell made one of two free throws. Then, FHSU scored the next 30 points. Lehman started the run when she scored on the inside on Caddell. Lehman drew a foul, and, as the ball went through the hoop, pumped her fist in excitement. She made the free throw for a 7-1 lead.

“You are seeing just the difference in Kate this year with her additional strength,” Hobson said. “It’s not like she is the strongest kid on the floor, but she is so much stronger than she was. She is able to take that pushing and all that stuff and still score. She had a great game tonight. Was very efficient.”

FHSU scored its next basket when FHSU senior Melissa Nelson blocked Central Missouri senior guard Erin Redmond’s pass at midcourt. Edwards, who finished with 14 points, picked up the ball and scored an easy layup.

“It’s kind of a soft press, because it’s not like they are up in your face,” Slifer said. “They are just trying to have the offense waste some time, but Edwards created enough problems that our point guards had a nightmare.”

The Tigers bumped the lead to 13-1 when Lehman collected a defensive rebound, passed to senior Kaiameka Brown, who hit Edwards for a fast break layup. In the half court, FHSU constantly knocked the balls loose in the dribbling and passing lanes that helped lead to quick offense. Later, Brown collected a steal on junior Quinnecia Twine, dribbled down and passed to Edwards for a layup. Fort Hays will play at Missouri Western State University on Saturday in St. Joseph, Mo.

“We are so quick, and we are so deep,” Lehman said. “We had nine, 10 players that could play and play good. When you’ve got Taylor Chandler and Kai running you down every play, you are going to get exhausted. They are not. They have got endurance. They are quick. That helps a lot. Then, we have tall players like Kate Edwards. You can’t see over that when you are 5-4.”