Fort Hays men’s basketball coach Mark Johnson wasn’t overly impressed with his team’s defense for the bulk of Tuesday night’s MIAA opener against the hot-shooting Nebraska-Kearney Lopers.
However, the Tigers made up for it by buckling down in the waning moments of a back-and-forth battle.
The Lopers and Tigers traded blows for most of the second half until a 3-pointer from Kyler Kinnamon put Fort Hays in front by a point with 1:30 left. FHSU then came up with three straight defensive stops to fight off UNK and grab a 76-73 win at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
“Our defense was not very good for most of the night,” Johnson said. “I do think it was pretty good the last two minutes of the game.”
After Kinnamon’s 3 gave Fort Hays a 74-73 lead, UNK’s Kanon Koster was called for a charge on the ensuing possession. After a Tigers’ turnover, the Lopers' Henry Penner air-balled a contested 3-pointer with 11 seconds left.
FHSU's Marcus Cooper then hit two free throws with nine seconds remaining and UNK’s Chase Winchester missed a deep 3-pointer with three seconds left with Cooper securing the rebound.
“I think Marcus Cooper deserves a lot of credit,” Johnson said. “Kanon Koster, he’s just a big (6-foot-4) guard. He was posting some of our other guys in transition. The game got a little slower so we were able to put Marcus on him the last two or three minutes of the game and he did a great job of not letting him get around him. That was obviously big, big plays.”
While UNK knocked down 12 3-pointers, FHSU had success pounding it inside to senior forward Brady Werth, who scored a game-high 27 points, going 9 of 16 from the floor and 8 of 11 from the foul line.
“I think we try (to establish post play) every game, it’s just how the defense is playing us and if the guards are getting it to me, and they were getting it to me today,” Werth said. “We were able to finish it off.”
FHSU (5-3, 1-0 MIAA) led 35-34 at halftime behind 17 points from Werth before the lead switched hands 16 times in the second half.
Outside of Kinnamon’s go-ahead ahead 3, Aaron Nicholson supplied the biggest shot of the game, hitting a corner trey to tie it at 71 with 2:02 left.
The largest lead of the game was a six-point cushion by UNK in the first half, while FHSU’s biggest advantage was a five-point leadwith 10:46 left.
“They’re a good team so it was back and forth,” Werth said. “They were shooting the heck out of the 3; we didn’t want them to do that but they were. We answered, and we ended up with the win.”
Devin Davis finished with 13 points while Nicholson had 12. Davis, a junior guard, and senior forward Freddy Bitondo (six points, four rebounds) gave the Tigers key minutes off the bench.
“I thought Freddy was big for us,” Johnson said. “He gave a little spark for us. He got out there and used his athleticism and got a couple transition plays and then he got a really big offensive tip-in. We need that from him, and Devin is the same way.
“Devin’s high-energy. Whether it be good or bad, he’s going high-energy. Sometimes it’s good for us, sometimes it’s for the other team, but he’s pretty active. I thought Freddy and Devin gave us a nice little stretch there to give us our five-point lead.”
UNK (3-4, 0-1 MIAA) got 17 points each from Chase Winchester and Penner while Koster added 11.
The Tigers will play host to Emporia State at 4 p.m. Saturday.