Tiger women win at Emporia
By AUSTIN COLBERT
EMPORIA -- Two weeks ago, the Fort Hays State University women's basketball team wasn't ranked. For whatever reason, it has taken the Tigers a long time to make believers out of the rest of the country.
And for the most part, FHSU liked its under-the-radar image, accepting it as it won game after game and eventually broke into the rankings last week at No. 17. But by throttling then-No. 4 Pittsburg State University at home Saturday, the voters finally took notice, moving the Tigers up to No. 6 nationally this week.
If there was still doubt, FHSU removed it Wednesday with a 65-55 upset of No. 2 Emporia State University at Slaymaker Court in White Auditorium. Not only was the win the first for FHSU in Emporia since the 1995-96 season -- a span of 12 straight losses -- it also eliminated any remaining underdog image anyone might have had about the Tigers.
"It's amazing. I can't even find the words to describe how amazing this feeling is right now. I'm so proud of my team, I can start crying," said FHSU junior guard Chelsea Mason, who was having trouble keeping her emotions in check following Wednesday's win. "We were underrated, but we are always going to be the underdog because we are Fort Hays State. And we kind of like that. We don't want to be on top, we want to be the one who people think is never going to win so we can prove everyone wrong."
Much like Saturday in their 62-43 win over PSU, now ranked No. 9, there was nothing lucky or questionable about the Tigers' win over ESU (16-2 overall, 9-2 MIAA), which had won its previous 23 games at home. FHSU (19-1, 11-0) did what it had done to its previous 18 opponents, which is simply walk onto the court and be the better team.
Only five opponents have reached the 60-point mark against the Tigers this season, and none in the past five games heading into Wednesday's contest. FHSU, ranked second in the MIAA in scoring defense at 52.9 points per game, quickly put the clamps on ESU, which has the No. 2 scoring offense in the conference (76.2 points per game, behind only FHSU), jumping out to a 23-8 lead midway through the first half.
What is typically one of the loudest and most intimidating venues in the MIAA was unusually quiet as the Tigers dismantled the Hornets for the first 10 minutes of the game.
"It takes the crowd out of it. They had a nice, loud crowd. And it gives us the confidence to continue playing. If we get down 10-2 or 12-4, man, I don't know what would happen," FHSU coach Tony Hobson said of the team's fast start.
"I'm really proud of the way we played and not only the start we got off to, but the way we did not lose our composure, totally, when they made a huge run at us. You know they are going to do that here. They are not going to lie down and get beat by 25. You knew they had at least one run in them."
Despite a rather dominant first half and a 35-21 lead after 20 minutes, there was little doubt the game was far from over. It seemed everyone, from Hobson and the Tigers to the ESU faithful, knew the Hornets would make a run.
FHSU's lead reached as much as 20 points on numerous occasions, the final time coming at 45-25 with 14:57 to play. That was when the run started, four 3-pointers helping get the Hornets as close as 51-44 with less than 10 minutes remaining, the raucous home crowd truly alive and heard for the first time all game.
"If you're going to beat a team like this at their place, with so much meaning riding on the outcome of the game, you are going to have to make shots," Hobson said. "We can do almost everything else flawlessly -- defense and move the ball -- but if you don't make the shot, it doesn't matter."
Enter sophomore Jill Faxon, who connected on a 3-pointer with nine minutes on the clock to end a 19-6 ESU run and get the FHSU lead back to double digits. From there, it was a matter of just holding on, the emphasis being on the Tigers' defense to finish the game.
"We just went out and played and what happened, happened," Mason said. "This team has the ability to keep doing things that have never been done before. And this game was very important. We just came out and we just played. We didn't think about anything."
ESU got no closer than eight points at 54-46 with five minutes to play, Mason's 3-pointer seconds later basically taking the stinger away from the Hornets for good.
Senior Kate Lehman led FHSU with 18 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. She surpassed Petrece Faulkner (1989-93) to move into third place all-time in FHSU career scoring. Behind Lehman, Mason finished with 14 points and Faxon 12. Four different ESU players found double digits, led by Merissa Quick's 14 points.
With a month to play in the regular season, FHSU holds a two-game lead in the MIAA. The Tigers will be in Topeka Saturday for a 5 p.m. matchup with Washburn University (13-5, 5-5), which had been ranked earlier this season.
And with back-to-back wins over top-four competition, FHSU feels it might be time to embrace its new identity as one of the nation's elite teams.
"I don't think that really matters to us. It's nice when we do get ranked, but I think just working toward it and proving that we are a good team is what we are really all about," Faxon said. "It's time teams start taking us seriously. We have proven it lately. It's going to be fun having teams come at us with all we got, and we are going at them with all we have."
FHSU and Emporia State will play once more in the regular season, a Feb. 7 meeting at Gross Memorial Coliseum in Hays.