Tigers deliver exciting win
By CONOR NICHOLL
Coach Mark Johnson perpetually wears a serious, near stoic look after Fort Hays State University victories.
Johnson showed a rare outburst of emotion and joy Wednesday night at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
His Tigers trailed by eight with 3:05 remaining, but managed to win 80-79 against University of Central Oklahoma when sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson went full court for a layup with 1.6 seconds remaining.
The Bronchos' desperation trey at the buzzer hit off the bottom of the backboard.
Then Johnson clenched his fists, let out a celebratory yell near half court and high-fived his players. He was proud of the victory, but also FHSU's fight to bounce back from an 0-3 start in MIAA play.
Fort Hays has gone 13-2 in league action since the losing streak, including three overtime victories and three others by three points or fewer. With the victory, FHSU moved to 22-5, 13-5 MIAA, and clinched the fourth seed and the final first-round bye into the conference tournament next week in Kansas City, Mo.
"A pretty special group that is able to do that," Johnson said. "I am just happy for them that they are able to do that. It's a big accomplishment, to go from where we are at to where we are today."
The Tigers, ranked No. 6 in the Central Region, sealed the season series against UCO, ninth regionally at 17-8, 11-7 MIAA. The Bronchos would have taken the fourth seed with a victory.
FHSU won at UCO 101-97 in overtime Jan. 16 when the Tigers trailed by three in the final 22 seconds of regulation. Nicholson called Wednesday the season's craziest victory -- and the most emotion he has seen from his coach.
"When you see him do that, it gets you even more pumped up," Nicholson said. "It was a great win."
After the 0-3 start, Fort Hays went to Missouri Southern in the first game after holiday break. The Lions were 9-1, and Tiger senior forward Dwayne Brunson had a bad knee that continues to bother him.
FHSU won 76-67 and eventually vaulted from last in the league to another 20-win season. FHSU closes out the regular season Friday at home against Northeastern State (Okla.) University.
"Honestly, we just don't have the ability level to have great separation," Johnson said. "There is no one that we are going to play that we are just going to blow off the court. We just don't have that kind of ability. But you can accomplish a lot when you've got a little belief in yourself, and you've got a little toughness, and you just be resilient and you keep battling."
Fort Hays led 37-27 at halftime against a Broncho offense Johnson considers the league's best.
"They were just off," Johnson said. "That first half was just kind of a little different than what I thought the game would be."
UCO, led by 22 points and nine rebounds from senior Josh Gibbs, took a 76-68 lead. Nicholson thought about having a play-in game for the league tournament next week, an outcome he didn't desire.
"Really could have put our heads down and just packed it in, and we just kept coming, kept coming, kept coming," Johnson said.
FHSU followed with five straight points, including a rare half court steal from senior forward Dwayne Brunson. Brunson (11 points, 11 rebounds) picked UCO sophomore Aaron Anderson off the dribble, a turnover that led to a 3-point play from Nicholson and a 76-73 deficit with 2:15 left.
"You will be surprised," Nicholson said. " When it comes to hedging, he will steal a lot of balls. He got me a couple times down in preseason. He can do that really well."
UCO pushed the lead back to 79-73 before senior Carson Konrade sunk a 3 from the left side with 1:25 left.
Fort Hays inserted senior forward Marty Wendel for defensive purposes in the final three minutes. Wendel bottled up Gibbs and forced an off-balance jumper as the shot clock wound down.
"He did a great job," Johnson said. "He battled Gibbs."
Nicholson responded with two free throws that cut the score to 79-78 with 45 seconds left.
"The last two minutes, I had to get the guys together and tell them, 'Hey, we've got to stick together and just fight and get stops, so we can score,'" Nicholson said.
Then, FHSU delivered great defense again in the half court. UCO sophomore Seth Heckart missed a wild trey in the final seconds of the shot clock. He tried to grab a long rebound, but went out of bounds. FHSU called timeout with 7.7 seconds remaining.
"It started looking good, and then once we got that last stop, I just knew that it was going to be over, because I will finish this," Nicholson said.
Nicholson, who led the Tigers with 25 points, received a big screen from Wendel, weaved his way down the court, and, with little contact, made a layup on the right side. Nicholson said he's never been "that open" in the lane for a final shot.
As 3,177 fans cheered, Nicholson simply smiled.
After the buzzer sounded and Johnson's emotions, assistant coach Jeremy Brown found Nicholson just outside the locker room. Brown smiled, clasped Nicholson's hand and pulled him in for a celebratory bear hug.
"When I made it, I was happy, because I know a lot of times I have been shooting and I miss," Nicholson said. "It was nice to see it finally go in when it matters."