FHSU women move into MIAA semis By CONOR NICHOLL

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Earlier in the season, the Fort Hays State University women's basketball team started 10-0 and rose to No. 10 in the NCAA Division II poll, the highest ranking in school history. Then, the Tigers delivered a struggling performance and lost by 10 at Northeastern (Okla.) State University on Jan. 3, the year's first defeat.

FHSU eventually dropped out of the top 25, but continued to receive votes as it mainly mixed close victories with losses. On Friday, the Tigers resembled a top-10 team with a 61-42 blowout victory versus Northeastern State in the MIAA conference tournament quarterfinals at Municipal Auditorium.

“I thought our effort was just great for 40 minutes,” FHSU coach Tony Hobson said. “That is as good as we have played from beginning to end in quite some time.”

It was arguably the Tigers’ best all-around contest since a 95-50 home win against University of Central Missouri on Dec. 5.

Fort Hays, the tournament’s No. 6 seed, improved to 22-6, the most victories in a single season since 2004-05. Northeastern State, the No. 3 seed and ranked eighth in the region, finished 19-8.

“Playing hard the whole time,” said senior Traci Keyser, who finished with 14 points on four treys. “Every possession, we talked about finishing the play, finishing the half, finishing the game, and I think we did pretty well with that today.”

Fort Hays is scheduled to play the Jennies, currently the MIAA’s No. 2 seed and second in the Central Region, at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the semifinals.

The teams haven’t matched up since Dec. 5, and UCM since added junior forward Keuna Flax, a transfer who leads the team with 19.3 points per contest and earned first team all-MIAA.

Earlier in the week, FHSU believed a win against Northeastern State would propel it into the NCAA tournament. However, Fort Hays, despite just one loss since Jan. 26, dropped out of the top 10 in the latest Central Region rankings released Wednesday. The top eight in each region make the tournament.

“Who knows?,” Hobson said. “We might have to win like 25 in a row before we get into our region tournament. When the region rankings came out, I heard a couple of girls talking about they were disappointed, (saying), ‘Geez, we had people jump in front of us.’ I have always just thought that when you start worrying about rankings and where you are going to be seeded for a tournament, you lose focus on what you need to be looking at, and that’s playing the game.”

The road loss at Northeastern, the lone meeting between the two schools, started a 2-5 stretch for the Tigers that has hurt them in the rankings. Four of those defeats came on the road.

“I definitely think we saw it as an opportunity on a neutral court. and we knew that we didn’t play our best there, and it was going to be a completely different game here, and we were way more confident,” junior Katelyn Edwards said. “I think we learned a lot from the first time.”

FHSU now has won four straight by at least 13 points, held Northeastern State to 28 percent shooting and limited Riverhawk senior Taylor Lewis, the co-MIAA Player of the Year, to 5 of 14 from the field for a team-high 13 points.

“I think we realized that our season is almost over, and we don’t want to quit playing,” said sophomore center Kate Lehman, who paced the Tigers with 18 points. “This is a great group of girls, probably the best team I have ever, ever been on, and we don’t want it to be over, and if we don’t play good, then we don’t get to keep playing. That’s kind of our attitude.”

FHSU continually rotated fresh bodies to guard Lewis and contained her to 0 of 4 from beyond the arc. It was Lewis’ second game, first against an MIAA opponent, where she didn’t sink a trey.

“Fort Hays did a good job defensively of coming out and playing very hard and utilizing their depth and their size inside,” Northeastern State coach Randy Gipson said.

“They just stuck with me really well throughout the whole entire game,” Lewis added.

Fort Hays forced 12 turnovers and constantly disrupted the passing lanes, especially inside with Lehman and Edwards and Tera Ingalsbe. The Tigers never trailed after the first minute, led 34-20 at halftime and by 24 with 13 minutes, 49 seconds left.

“One thing that we have been working hard on is just seeing the ball,” Hobson said. “I know it sounds like a basic basketball fundamental, but it’s really hard to do when you trying to chase people around four or five curl screens and trying not to lose your man, and then also know where the ball is. It’s not as easy to do as sometimes I think it should be, but we did a very good job of that tonight.”

Keyser continued her strong play with one trey early in the first half and then three more in the first four and a half minutes of the second half. Fort Hays is 12-0 when Keyser hits at least two 3s in a game. In the last 11 contests, Keyser is 29 of 68 (42.6 percent) from beyond the arc. FHSU is 10-1 in those games. Friday's victory marked the first time the Tiger women had won a game at Municipal; FHSU was 0-3.

“The other thing is, when Traci seems to hit some, we always get a few from other people, too, so it’s kind of catching, I think.” Hobosn said, drawing a smile from several Tigers in the news conference. “They see Traci do it, and they say, “Well, I know if Traci can do it, I can hit one, too.’ Traci, the last seven, eight games has been very tough.”