Tiger men prepare for Emporia State
By CONOR NICHOLL
The Fort Hays State University men's basketball team delivered a 78-75 win at Pittsburg State University last Saturday, a victory that encapsulated the Tigers' season. Fort Hays again relied heavily on its veteran trio of sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson, senior guard Carson Konrade and senior forward Dwayne Brunson. They combined for 40 points, 19 rebounds and eight assists. For the season, the threesome collectively average 48 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists a contest.
Coach Mark Johnson has wanted a fourth player to step up and help with the scoring. He received 15 points off the bench from junior guard James Fleming, who, after a strong start to the season, struggled before playing well the last four contests. Sophomore Jake Stoppel added 10 points and 11 rebounds.
"I am happy that (coach) has that confidence in me and not give up on me when I went down, because a lot of coaches wouldn't have gave players that opportunity, but I picked up my play," Fleming said. "I am pretty happy for myself."
Nicholson hit a big 3 that broke a 71-71 tie and then made some key foul shots in the final six seconds. PSU missed a trey at the buzzer. FHSU won its eighth straight contest, seventh in a row in conference play, and improved to 16-3, 7-3 MIAA.
After it lost its first two league games in overtime, FHSU has won five league contests in the winning streak by nine points or fewer, including three within four points and one in overtime.
Fort Hays vaulted back into the top 25 at No. 24 in the latest NCAA Division II poll released Tuesday.
"There is a lot of enthusiasm in the locker room right now, and we realize what we have got going on here," Stoppel said. "Hopefully, we can keep playing and keep winning the close games. I think we can definitely make a big push here at the end."
It marks the first time FHSU is ranked since the Dec. 3 poll. Saturday's win also was program victory No. 1,500. The Tigers are the sixth program in NCAA annals to reach 1,500 wins.
Fort Hays is 1,500-864, a .635 winning percentage that stands in the top-15. University of Central Missouri, third in victories, is the only MIAA school on the list.
On Thursday, Fort Hays plays host to Emporia State University (14-6, 7-3 MIAA), on a five-game winning streak and FHSU's longest rivalry. Start time is 7:30 p.m. from Gross Memorial Coliseum.
On Saturday, FHSU will face Washburn University (14-3, 7-3 MIAA) at 4 p.m. at GMC. The Tigers are 94-81 all-time against the Hornets, including four in a row and five straight at home.
Fort Hays is the lone MIAA team ranked in the top-25, and helped by an undefeated non-conference record and a 9-2 record in road/neutral games, is in strong position for a NCAA tournament berth and possible conference crown with nine regular season games left.
At this point, normally Johnson sets a number of wins Fort Hays needs to achieve its goals. This season, Johnson won't do that right now.
In the past, FHSU played a round-robin schedule and faced every league team twice.
Now, the Tigers play the eastern teams once and are done with the three teams ahead of them in the standings: Northwest Missouri State University, Missouri Southern State University and Central Missouri.
However, this week could help the Tigers achieve a top-four seed and a first-round conference tournament bye at year's end, an outcome Johnson said FHSU "can control."
"We just have to worry about winning games," Johnson said. "I think a big key for us right now, though, is we are in the running fighting - especially with the two teams that we are playing this week -- to get one of those four spots."
Emporia State finished 13-14, 8-10 MIAA last season with multiple new players. This winter, the Hornets return many of their top leaders, including Kaleb Wright, who led the team in scoring last season and this year at 18.7 points per contest.
"They were a talented team last year and just couldn't quite put it together," Johnson said. "All of those guys are back."
Guard Terrence Moore, a cousin of Nicholson, is second at 15.5 points per contest. Veteran forwards Paul Bunch and Gavin Brown rank 1-2 in rebounding.
"Challenging matchups for us trying to slow them down," Johnson said.