It would be hard not to call defending national champion and five-time reigning MIAA regular-season champion Northwest Missouri State the favorite to win the MIAA men’s basketball tournament this week in Kansas City, Mo.
But the Fort Hays State University men’s basketball team could very well have the toughest quarterfinal draw of the tournament, tasked with slowing down the hottest team in the conference in Missouri Southern.
The second-seeded Lions (20-8, 15-4 MIAA) are riding an eight-game win streak heading into a Friday’s 2:15 p.m. matchup with Fort Hays (18-11, 10-9) at Municipal Auditorium.
“I know Northwest won the league, but probably you would say Missouri Southern has played the best basketball over the last month and a half of the season,” Tiger coach Mark Johnson said. “They started off 0-2 in conference and look where they’re at now.”
The Lions’ win streak includes a 73-70 win at Northwest, giving them a season-sweep of the Bearcats. Southern has likely already locked up a spot in the NCAA Division II Tournament after being tabbed fourth in this week’s Central Region rankings.
“They’re really talented,” FHSU junior guard Trey O’Neil said. “They have two guards (C.J. Carr and Elyjah Clark) that really can fill it up, so you know we’re going to have to be locked in on them. We just have to go out there and play our type of basketball and we’ll play as hard as we can and trust our teammates and hopefully things turn out the right way.”
Carr, a first-team All-MIAA pick, leads Southern with 17.6 points, 2.3 steals and 6.1 assists per game. Clark is averaging 16.9 points and has a school-record 104 3-pointers on the season for the Lions, who are guided by MIAA coach of the year Jeff Boschee.
The Tigers have a win over Southern to their credit on the season, knocking off the Lions 76-69 in their MIAA opener on Nov. 30 in Hays.
“C.J. Carr is probably that next best guard behind (Northwest Missouri’s Justin) Pitts,” Johnson said. “And offensively, I’m not sure he’s much behind him. He’s really talented. Elyjah Clark is a really good two-guard. I thought that was the key to the game (in November); we did a great job on him and didn’t let him get loose.”
No. 7-seeded Fort Hays advanced to the quarterfinals with a 71-65 win over Lindenwood in Tuesday’s first round game. Hadley Gillum scored 17 points and grabbed 11 rebounds while O’Neil added 16 points with four 3-pointers and Brady Werth chipped in 14 points.
Johnson said finding balanced scoring has been key for the Tigers.
“Really, all season long, you have to have a third guy for us to win,” Johnson said. “Brady and Hadley, for the most part, are going to put up close to 30 points (combined), or somewhere around there, maybe a little more. It’s about when we can get a third guy to come in and score. (Tuesday night) it happened to be Trey. The other night it was Marcus (Cooper).
“From the first game of the year, any time we can get a third guy to score 14, 16, somewhere around there, we usually have great success. But it hasn’t always been the easiest finding that third guy to do that.”
To give themselves the best chance against Southern, the Tigers will look to keep the Lions under their season average of 81.4 points per game.
“We got to go out and play a real high-scoring team that we’re not,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be about whose style of play wins. If it gets in the 80s we’re probably going to have a real hard time winning the game. But if we can keep it down like we’ve been doing, 71-65, 57-55, we’ll give ourselves a great opportunity.
“Our kids are pretty tough and have great character. If they can just be there with five minutes to go, they’re going to grind it out and be tough the last five minutes of the game. Hopefully we can be in that position and see what happens.”
The winner of the FHSU-Southern game will meet the winner of Friday’s noon matchup between No. 3 seed Washburn and No. 6 seed Nebraska-Kearney in Saturday’s 6 p.m. semifinal.