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Two weeks critical to FHSU's season

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Fort Hays State University men's basketball coach Mark Johnson doesn't set specific preseason goals. Instead, Johnson likes to have the season play out and then set goals with around 10 games left depending on where his Tigers stand.

This year, Johnson will wait even longer to set benchmarks for his team, currently 11-6, 5-4 MIAA through the first half of conference play. Fort Hays had arguably the hardest first-half MIAA slate, and its six conference road contests were tied for the most in the 15-team league.

University of Central Missouri leads the MIAA at 8-1 with its lone loss in Hays, and Johnson considers the Mules the league favorite. Seven teams, including FHSU, have three or four league losses.

In the next two weeks, Fort Hays has four straight home games -- and an opportunity to move up in the league race.

"Right now, these next two weeks are our season," Johnson said in his weekly news conference Monday afternoon.

The stretch starts Wednesday against University of Central Oklahoma (7-10, 5-4 MIAA). The Bronchos, one of four new MIAA squads this year, are 1-3 at home in conference and 4-1 on the road. After a slow start, UCO is 5-2 in its last seven games. Junior Josh Gibbs leads a physical team with 16.1 points per contest. The Bronchos pace the conference with 20.9 personal fouls per game. This marks the fourth time in the last six seasons the two teams have matched up. The previous three came in the NCAA tournament and UCO held a 2-1 advantage.

"It's a terrible matchup for us, tough matchup," Johnson said.

Because of league expansion, the conference has a different MIAA tournament than past years. Now, the top four teams earn a first-round bye to Kansas City, Mo.

Seeds 5-8 have a first-round home game versus seeds 9-12 with the winners going to Kansas City. The bottom three squads are out. Johnson believes success in the next two weeks sets FHSU up for an opportunity at a top-four seed and solid position for an NCAA tournament bid.

"What we do is up to us now," Johnson said.

Entering the second half of MIAA play, Johnson wanted to be at least 5-4 to have a chance down the stretch. FHSU accomplished that with a road win at Truman State (Mo.) University on Saturday.

"We can still make a push," senior guard Ben Conguista, the conference leader in minutes played and No. 15 nationally in 3-point field goal percentage (44.3 percent), said. "We've got a lot of games left. We have gone through a very tough stretch. I think we have done fine.

"Winning (Saturday) is obviously a big help, but being home is not going to be any easier," Conguista added. "We play some really tough teams at home, so every game is a new game. We've got to take each day as it comes."

Against Truman, Congiusta took a nasty cut above his left eye when he was involved in a midcourt collision with a Bulldog player and the ball. He had to sit out a couple minutes in the first half because the cut required a wrap. At intermission, he had a shot and stitches and missed the first few minutes of the second half. Several times during the game, blood ran down his face. Still, Congiusta finished with 14 points in 36 minutes. Congiusta said his head was throbbing after the game. Johnson said the team was expected to know more Monday on Congiusta's condition, but said "a lot of guys wouldn't have played" under those circumstances. The senior was expected to be fine.

"From a senior and leadership and a toughness standpoint, that's probably as good as is gets. I haven't told him this yet, but it was over and back," Jobnson said with a smile. "It would have been our ball if he wouldn't have dove on it, so if he would have been a little smarter on that play, he wouldn't have gotten hurt. It was great obviously to try to make the play."

Congiusta, freshman point guard Craig Nicholson, senior guard Lance Russell and junior forward Dwayne Brunson (team-high 14.5 points per game) all average scoring in double figures. Johnson has asked for more production from his bench. Junior guard Carson Konrade had averaged nearly 10 points per game, but is slow coming back from a thigh injury. He has 16 points in four games since he returned.

"Not quite back to playing where he was," Johnson said. "... He is a perfectionist. He over thinks out there at times and gets down when things aren't perfect, and things aren't going to be perfect. He needs to just play at times."

FHSU did have production from juniors Nick Capiti and Marty Wendel in last week's road trip to Lindenwood (Mo.) University and Truman. Capiti finished with 10 points against Lindenwood, his most in a conference game. Wendel has played few minutes because of his limited offensive game. He finished with a career-high eight points and also pulled down seven rebounds versus Truman. Johnson said UCO's matchup problems could allow Capiti and Wendel to see more playing time than usual.

"It's a team thing," Congiusta said. "If somebody gets into foul trouble, we've just got to bring our people off the bench. I thought somebody like Marty, he was fantastic (Saturday)."