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Nicholson provides spark for FHSU in lopsided win

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

The Fort Hays State University men's basketball team has little depth at two positions -- point guard and post. Monday's home contest against NAIA Sterling College again showed the importance of freshman point guard Craig Nicholson. Plus, the emergence of junior center Andrew Victoria gives FHSU another inside presence, especially offensively.

Nicholson and Victoria helped Fort Hays win its fifth straight contest with an 80-49 victory at Gross Memorial Coliseum. The Tigers started a little slowly, but never trailed and led 40-27 at halftime.

Fort Hays finished the first semester with a 7-2 record. Nicholson, the MIAA leader with 61 assists, continued to play at a high level. He finished with 11 points, eight assists, both team-highs, and just one turnover. When Nicholson was on the court, Fort Hays outscored Sterling by 28 points. When he wasn't on the court, FHSU was plus-3 against the Warriors (6-6).

"He is unbelievable for a freshman point guard," Victoria said. "I tell him that he is one of the best freshmen point guards that there is. I love playing with him. He knows when to pass. He knows when people are open. He knows the game pretty well for a freshman. I am surprised."

Victoria, a Butler County Community College transfer, hurt his knee last spring and needed surgery.

Then, Victoria hurt it again in preseason with the Tigers and missed the first four games, a stretch when FHSU went 2-2 with a pair of close losses. Coach Mark Johnson believes the knee is "going to be a struggle" for Victoria all season.

"In the spring, it just happened, we were playing for coaches at my junior college, and I just came down wrong, and then I think the same thing happened here," Victoria said. "I didn't really notice that I did anything different. I just started hurting one day and it got really swollen."

His 6-foot-8, 230-pound frame helps Tiger junior forward Dwayne Brunson and senior center Rundell Mauge. The trio is the only three players above 6-foot-6.

"They did a great job, I can't say that they did anything wrong when I wasn't in there," Victoria said. "I just feel like I could have brought a little more."

In his first game back, Victoria finished with four key points in four minutes in a home win against University of Central Missouri on Dec. 5.

"It made me feel like I could still play," Victoria said.

On Monday, he finished with eight points and two blocks in eight minutes. Johnson said Victoria still needs work on mobility, rebounding and defense, but Victoria has contributed 14 points in 21 minutes. Victoria can help a team that rarely receives scoring from more than five players.

Last Saturday, Fort Hays won at Oklahoma Panhandle State University, 87-80. Five players had all but seven points. On Dec. 8, five players scored all 84 points in an overtime win against Missouri Western State University.

"Andrew is a guy, we feel like has the ability to put some points on the board for us," Johnson said.

At point guard, Nicholson must play at a high level - and play a high frequency of minutes for the Tigers to be successful. Fort Hays has no backup point guard and senior shooting guard Ben Congiusta has to move from the wing to the point if Nicholson isn't playing.

"What it does, is it takes Ben out of his position," Johnson said. "It affects Ben. Ben is a very good 2 guard and Ben can just settle in to what he needs to do - just shoot the basketball. We are running stuff to Ben and when he gets to the point guard position, it takes away Ben's ability to score the ball and shoot the ball. It's kind of an overall effect, not just Craig."

Nicholson finished 2-of-7 from the field with seven points and five assists in the first half. In the second half, he was 1-of-2 from the field for four points and three assists.

Nicholson made several key plays after intermission. First, he hit two early free throws that pushed the lead to 45-29 with 17 minutes, 54 seconds left in the first half. Less than a minute later, FHSU broke Sterling's press and Nicholson fed Mauge for a dunk. At the 16:55 mark, Nicholson found Brunson down low. Midway through the half, Nicholson drove the right side and scored a layup over a Sterling defender for a 53-31 lead.

"He typified the whole team," Johnson said. "I don't know how much he was ready to go the first half. He is a freshman and those things happen, but the second half, I thought he really turned it around and was more into the game.

"We have to have that," Johnson continued. "When he is not into the game, not making some stuff happen, we tend to struggle a little bit. He did a much better job in the second half."