Tigers set to begin MIAA play
By CONOR NICHOLL
The Fort Hays State University women's basketball team hasn't played a game since Nov. 24. Since then, the 6-0 Tigers have risen to No. 23 in NCAA Division II and taken a couple of days off. Practice-wise, coach Tony Hobson said the squad "added some things offensively" and "tried to tune a few things up."
"We had basically, eight games, two exhibition and then six games, so it's kind of hard to revert back to just a week straight of practice," Hobson said in his weekly news conference Monday afternoon. "We won't have that the rest of the year, so I think that, for the most part, they were into it and the intensity was fine, but it's still not the same as if you are preparing for a game.
"I noticed even last (Sunday) night, we came back and practiced yesterday after a day and a half off Friday, Saturday. I noticed the intensity level had already picked back up where it needed to be," he added.
After the long break, Fort Hays returns to the floor Wednesday against University of Central Missouri, receiving votes in the NCAA coaches poll at 5-0. The Jennies also haven't played since Nov. 24. It's the first conference game for both teams. Game time is 5:30 p.m. at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
Hobson is 4-5 against the Jennies in his career with the Tigers. Other than one neutral site contest at the MIAA tournament last March, the home team has won six of eight times. While Washburn University and Emporia State University consistently have been top-15 programs nationally and each won a national championship in the last 10 years, Central Missouri has delivered multiple NCAA appearances under veteran coach Dave Slifer. Last winter, FHSU and UCM were close in the standings all year.
Because of the MIAA's unbalanced schedule this season, Wednesday marks the lone time Fort Hays and Central meet up. Even though it's December, a win could be a tiebreaker come March.
"We are at the bottom of the top, top of the middle with Central," Hobson said. "They are kind of the ones we need to get over first. We are pretty evenly matched most of the time. Boy, when you have them one time at home and you don't get a return trip, you just have to make it count and that's what we need to do Wednesday."
Central Missouri has a new look squad, but does return senior forward Nicole Caddell, a first team all-MIAA player last year, who averages 11.4 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. The 5-foot-11 Caddell is shorter than FHSU's 6-4 sophomore center Kate Lehman, but poses matchup problems because of her physical strength.
Last March, Central Missouri beat Fort Hays 73-61 in the MIAA tournament. Since Christmas of last year, the loss has marked Lehman's only subpar game. She had some rare foul trouble and played 20 minutes with nine points and three blocks, all of it in the second half. Caddell tallied 14 points and nine rebounds.
This year, Lehman is averaging 17.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and has 28 total blocks. Junior Kate Edwards is at 12.7 points and 8.3 rebounds, while senior guard Melissa Nelson has tacked on 9.7 points.
"I know what she is capable of doing now, and I think she does, too," Hobson said of Lehman. "Playing with a lot of confidence. I think our team is really aware of Kate's abilities inside and they are giving her the ball more this year than they even were last year. They are looking for her. Kate Edwards and Mel, probably our 2 and 3 scorers, probably have more assists to Kate Lehman than anybody for us."
Freshman guard Shelby Winkelmann averages 17.2 points per contest. She transferred from Division I University of Nebraska where she played volleyball.
Junior BreAnna Lewis, a transfer from Trinity Valley Community College, leads the Jennies with 18.8 points per contest. Hobson said the Jennies aren't as strong inside because Shaq Wiggins - who had 22 points and 11 rebounds last March against FHSU - didn't return. However, Central Missouri has plenty of physical strength and athleticism.
"Probably the last two years, they ran a lot of sets and got a lot of 3-point shots," Hobson said. "This year, a lot of their stuff is coming off the dribble and one on one and just kind of clearing out and going and creating something."
Central Missouri's athleticism will pose a different test for a Tiger team that has allowed just 44.7 points per contest and held opponents to 31.9 percent shooting.
"I am just excited to play this game, and we need to find out if we are going to be able to handle this type of game with the pressure, and the players," Hobson said. "I think team defense we are pretty solid. I am not sure how we are individually, just like straight up man-to-man, 'I am going to take you to the basket what are you are going to do about it type defense.' We will find that out, too.SDRq