A three-point halftime lead never looked so good.
Despite leading 39-36, the Fort Hays State men’s basketball team had already racked up 16 fouls by the break on Saturday against Emporia State, with six different Tigers with at least two fouls.
But the Tigers managed to keep everybody around for crunch time, and it was a good thing they did.
FHSU came up clutch down the stretch in a tight game for the second straight game, holding off Emporia State for an 86-78 win at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
Jared Vitztum had three fouls at halftime while Brady Werth, Marcus Cooper, Nyjee Wright, Payton Stephens and Freddy Bitondo had two for FHSU.
“At halftime, we talked about how: ‘Guys, we have to play without fouling, but don’t lose your edge and your intensity,’ ” Fort Hays coach Mark Johnson said. “It’s very easy that when you’re scared about fouling, you back off and play unphysical. We couldn’t do that. We had to find a way to move our feet.
“Even though you’re trying to play without fouling, you still have to play hard and you still have to play tough.”
Though Emporia State still showed their offensive firepower in the second half, the Tigers fouled less and came up with some clutch shots late, most notably from Marcus Cooper and Aaron Nicholson.
ESU led 64-62 with 6:30 left before Cooper hit a 3 to start a 10-2 spurt, which also included a key 3-pointer from Nicholson.
“We’re at home and we’ve got to dig down deep, and I think that we did,” Cooper said. “A lot of players on our team made big shots. We played hard and played as a team.”
Cooper led all scorers with a game-high 23 points, going 8 of 12 from the field and 5 of 6 from the foul line. Nicholson and Kyler Kinnamon had 14 each while Devin Davis chipped in 13 points off the bench.
ESU led by three midway through the second half before Cooper answered with a 3. The teams went back and forth for the next few minutes before FHSU put it away late with help from Kinnamon, who hit six straight free throws in the final minute.
“Again, we made big shots coming home,” Johnson said. “Marcus hit two big threes in that stretch after we were down three.
“Kyler was huge. It’s kind of like a field goal kicker late in the game, people just expect you to make (free throws) but it’s not easy to do. But when you miss them, it changes the outcome of the game. Kyler stepped up and sealed the win for us.”
The Tigers moved to 6-3 and 2-0 in MIAA play while Emporia State fell to 5-3 and 1-1 in the MIAA.
Julius Jackson led ESU with 21 points while Malik Hluchoweckyj added 20 and Kooper Glick contributed 13.
“When their sets aren’t working, they put their head down and really start driving, and they’re hard to stop,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to play without fouling, and No. 12 (Jackson) and No. 2 (Hluchoweckyj) are tough to handle.”
FHSU went 29 of 53 from the field while Emporia State was 22 of 53. FHSU was called for 26 fouls but avoided having anyone foul out, while ESU committed 22 fouls.
Fort Hays won’t play next week, returning to action Dec. 17 against Bethel at home.
“We have so many things we need to shore up and get better at, especially on the defensive end,” Johnson said. “We need to utilize these practices between now and our next game. … We could really use them and try to get better every day in practice.”