Tiger men suffer tough loss
By CONOR NICHOLL
The Fort Hays State University men's basketball team ranks third in NCAA Division II in free throw percentage at 79.4 percent, on pace to break the school record of 76.7 percent set last year. In MIAA play, the Tigers have made 80 percent of their foul shots, 4.6 percent better than second place Northeastern (Okla.) State University.
The difference between first and second is nearly bigger than the difference between second and ninth place.
Free throw shooting has helped the Tigers win multiple close games and put itself in contention for a NCAA Tournament berth.
On Friday, the Tigers' rare poor free throw shooting was the main reason for a 75-72 loss to Northeastern State on senior night at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
"We got beat at the foul line," coach Mark Johnson said.
Fort Hays finished 6 of 14 (43 percent), setting a season worst for free throws made and percentage in a single contest this winter. The Riverhawks -- led by 30 points on 10 of 10 foul shooting from the MIAA's leading scorer, senior guard Bryton Hobbs -- finished 22 of 26 from the free throw line.
"Maybe everybody was just kind of uptight," senior guard Carson Konrade said. "It was a big game. We've just to keep getting up shots in practice and after practice on our own, and continue to shoot well from the free throw line, because it's big."
The Tigers, ranked No. 6 in the Central Region, finished the regular season 22-5, 13-6 MIAA. Northeastern State moved to 14-12, 9-10 MIAA.
"We should be really proud of that," Johnson said. "You just hate the way it finished. Hopefully in a few days, we will look back on the season and feel much better than we do now. I think our guys should really feel good about the season."
FHSU had clinched the fourth seed and first-round conference tournament bye with an emotional 80-79 victory Wednesday night against University of Central Oklahoma. The Tigers will play next in the quartefinals of the conference tournament Friday in Kansas City, Mo.
Sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson, the team's leading scorer and school single season record holder with 185 made foul shots, fouled out with 79 seconds left on an offensive foul. It was the second occasion this season and third time in his career he fouled out. Nicholson also tweaked his groin in the first half and collected 13 points, including just 1 of 4 from the foul line.
"You can tell in the second half, he wasn't near the player he was," Johnson said.
Junior guard James Fleming took over point guard duties with the Tigers down 69-68 and led a pair of possessions that ended in baskets from senior forward Dwayne Brunson (22 points, nine rebounds).
"Not having Craig is a really big loss," Konrade said. "He is a great leader. We look to him when it comes down to the end. James did a great job, too, also. It's tough. You always want everybody to be in the game when it comes down to the end, but unfortunately, they had some controversial calls that could have gone either way and just didn't go for us tonight."
Konrade had a potential game-tying trey on the right wing, but it hit off the front of the rim just before the buzzer sounded.
"When I let it go, I knew it was on line," Konrade said. "It was just a little bit short. I was hoping that it was going in."
FHSU led by as many as 11 in the first half and took a 43-36 halftime lead. After the break, the Riverhawks continued their hot shooting versus the Tigers' man and zone defenses. Northeastern shot 55 percent for the game and 53 percent (9 of 17) on treys.
NSU never led by more than three points, but kept it close with Hobbs' playmaking and the free throw disparity.
"When we did our few opportunities, we didn't shoot them well enough," Johnson said. "...Coming down the stretch, instead of that being a one or two point game, we shoot our free throws like we have been all year, now it's an eight point game and you just kind of hang on until the end. Give Northeastern a lot of credit. I thought they battled."
The Riverhawks took the lead for good when Hobbs tallied a layup for a 69-68 lead with 1:40 left.
"He is a great player," Konrade said of Hobbs. "He is really quick. He can shoot the ball, he can drive the ball. He has got a bunch of great guys to play with. They moved really well, and when they are all moving, they can get him open. They flow really well. They play as a team really well. They are just hard to guard."