FHSU men fall; season likely done
By CONOR NICHOLL
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- In a moment of self-reflection, Fort Hays State University men's basketball coach Mark Johnson finished his postgame news conference and walked to some stairs in the bowels of Municipal Auditorium.
Johnson sat down, put his forearms on his knees, and dropped his head. After a few moments, Tiger athletic director Curtis Hammeke and FHSU president Edward H. Hammond walked up to Johnson. Johnson briefly shook his head and then dropped his head again in disappointment.
Johnson's frustration punctuated a difficult 73-66 loss to Northwest Missouri State University in the MIAA conference tournament semifinals Saturday afternoon. FHSU didn't make a field goal from the 12 minute, 35 second mark of the second half until 13 seconds remained in the game. The Tigers lost a 12-point lead in the final 12:35, and likely ended their season at 20-8.
"We didn't do a great job of finishing the game, and I think from a head coaching standpoint, Fort Hays coach didn't do a great job down in the last 10 minutes of the game," Johnson said. "When your team has that kind of lead, you have got to find out a way to help your team to win that game, and obviously I didn't do that. So, obviously I feel really bad about that."
Top-seeded Fort Hays won the MIAA regular season championship for the first time, but is unlikely to make the NCAA tournament. The Tigers weren't ranked in the top 10 of the latest Central Region rankings released Wednesday.
While some teams ahead of them, such as Northeastern (Okla.) State University and Washburn University lost earlier in the tournament, the prevailing thought is FHSU's season is done. Northwest Missouri, the No. 5 seed, moved into today's championship at 20-9.
"I would say we deserve to be in," Johnson said. "I would say we should be in. I would say we are probably not. I would say we have to be prepared not to be in. It is what it is. But I think there is no question this basketball team is a NCAA tournament team. Will it be on paper? I don't know. But we are."
Offensively, Fort Hays had a strong first half, including an alley-oop dunk from senior Lance Russell off a pass from senior Ben Congiusta. Another time, junior Dwayne Brunson made a steal near midcourt, dribbled down and threw down a one-handed dunk. Congiusta led the team with 20 points, while Russell added 16. However, Congiusta had just seven in the second half.
Northwest Missouri, the MIAA leader in scoring defense and defensive efficiency, held the Tigers to 6 of 20 shooting in the second half, after FHSU shot 58 percent in the first half.
"In the first half, personally I felt like I got loose a couple of times, was able to get some shots off," Congiusta said. "I guess in the second half, they just amped it up a little bit, and it was a lot tougher for me to get a shot off, and it was a lot tougher for Craig (Nicholson) to penetrate."
In addition, junior center Dillon Starzl tallied 20 points and seven rebounds, both team-highs, including 17 after intermission.
"Northwest has a way to get easy baskets," Johnson said. "They can throw it into Dillon Starzl. He can go around the basket and score. We just do not have that this year."
Northwest also played the final 4:49 without senior guard DeAngelo Hailey, who suffered an apparent ankle injury. Coach Ben McCollum believed most people thought the season was over when faced with the deficit and Hailey's injury. Instead, Northwest, paced by its season-long positive attitude, rallied.
"Thought, 'OK, we can do this,' " McCullom said.
With 8:47 left, FHSU junior reserve forward Andrew Victoria fouled out with the Tigers leading 56-51. Victoria's 6-8, 230-pound frame gave FHSU plenty of size against the 6-8, 250-pound Starzl.
Victoria, expected not to play after he reinjured his knee in the quarterfinals Thursday, delivered a career-high 19 minutes.
"It's amazing what adrenaline can get you through," Johnson said.
Starzl, averaging 13 points per game, led the MIAA in field goal percentage this year. Because of injury, he missed the Feb. 6 contest in Hays, a 59-58 Tiger victory. Then, Starzl tallied a team-best 16 points in a 64-60 FHSU win in Maryville on Feb. 13. Johnson called Starzl "the difference" Saturday.
"If Craig can't get in there for layups, we don't get anything easy," Johnson said. That's the thing, we have got to battle for every offensive possession down the stretch, and they have the ability to throw it into (Starzl), and he either scores it or puts pressure on us."
At the start of the game, McCollum had sophomore Matt Wallace, the team's best defender, guarding Nicholson. He had senior guard Alex Sullivan on Congiusta. McCollum was uncertain whether Sullivan could stay with Congiusta.
In the second half, McCollum switched Wallace and Sullivan. As well, he told the Bearcats that if they had three defensive stops in a row, they would be OK.
"We kept on getting stop after stop," Starzl said. "We kept getting big defensive rebounds. We got offensive rebounds that were huge."
Starzl tied the game at 56 with 7:29 left. Then, he scored back-to-back baskets to give Northwest a 64-60 lead with 2:16 remaining. It marked the Bearcats' first lead since the first half. FHSU never led again.
"It comes down to, who makes the best decisions and who gets a couple breaks," Johnson said. "They probably made a few better decisions."