Tiger men hang on for road win
By CONOR NICHOLL
EMPORIA - The 2013-14 Fort Hays State University men’s basketball team averages 86.1 points per game, the highest in Mark Johnson’s 13 years as head coach. As well, FHSU is on pace to shatter the school single-season free-throw percentage record, set last season.
On Saturday, though, Fort Hays played like many of Johnson’s past teams that won close, low-scoring, defensive-minded contests that ended in the 60s. The Tigers went on a late 8-0 run and delivered a 65-59 victory against rival Emporia State University at White Auditorium. It was the Tigers’ lowest output of the season and first time they had been under 70 points.
“That’s how we have won the majority of our games,” Johnson said. “This team, we haven’t quite played it that way, but I thought this was kind of similar to games of years past. We didn’t necessarily play very well offensively. We missed too many free throws. I thought their switching defense really gave us problems, because we rushed shots. We never got into a nice, comfortable rhythm in the offense, but we did the other things to win.”
Fort Hays, ranked No. 23 in NCAA Division II, bounced back after Wednesday’s loss at University of Nebraska-Kearney that ended a 10-game winning streak.
The Tigers stayed in the mix for a top-four seed and first-round bye for the conference tournament and an NCAA Division II tournament at-large bid with five regular-season games left, four at home.
“Great road win,” Johnson said. “Really happy with our guys. You want to win them all, but if we started the week and said, ‘You can go 1-1,’ we probably would have said, ‘OK, we will take it.’”
FHSU is 19-4, 10-4 MIAA, while Emporia State lost its fourth straight and dropped to 14-10, 7-7 MIAA.
“It was nice to see this team do that and show that they are capable of doing that,” Johnson said. “We’ve relied on our offense way too many times. We went up to Kearney and tried to outscore them. Going on the road, we have been a great road team this year – most of the time, you have to find a way to slow the other team down on their home floor, and we did that tonight.”
Saturday’s contest was much different than the Jan. 30 meeting that Fort Hays won 99-92 in double overtime. Hornet senior Kaleb Wright had 30 points in that contest and averages 19 for the season. This time, junior Tom Gabric helped hold Wright to 15 points, tied with senior center Paul Bunch for the team high.
“I did my best, but it was based on team defense,” Gabric said. “We fought the whole game. We came back because we lost against Kearney, and we wanted to win this one so bad. I am really glad for the guys.”
FHSU often played with more energy than the Hornets. On one possession in the second half, Gabric hustled past Bunch for an offensive rebound that eventually led to a Bunch foul and two made foul shots from sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson. FHSU held a 30-21 lead in free throw attempts and a 10-5 edge in second chance points.
“We really guarded, and we rebounded,” Johnson said. “Kaleb Wright is a great player, really got the best of us last time and Tom really took the challenge and stood up today. I thought he did a tremendous job.”
In Friday’s practice, FHSU senior guard Carson Konrade severely sprained his ankle. The Tigers were uncertain whether Konrade would play at one point, but he finished with eight points.
“Carson fought through it, and he really (was) clutch,” Gabric said.
Senior forward Dwayne Brunson, despite continually playing with a bad knee, collected 26 points, while Nicholson had 21 despite being hobbled for part of the second half. The game started slowly and was tied at 23 at halftime. Neither squad held more than an eight point lead all contest. FHSU has now win six straight against the Hornets.
With eight and a half minutes left, Nicholson came up hobbling after he went hard to the basket. He walked it off around midcourt during free throws. Then, Nicholson quickly made a steal under the ESU basket, and, as he was falling out of bounds, passed it to Gabric.
The next possession, he sunk a trey for a 48-44 lead. FHSU moved the lead to seven about 30 seconds later when Nicholson went right and flipped a pass to Konrade, who delivered a trey. ESU eventually came back and tied it at 56, but three baskets by Brunson and two foul shots by Nicholson sealed the win.
“Him and Craig mean a lot to us, and the other guys, they do their role great,” Johnson said. “A lot of our guys play off those two.”