Twice already, the Fort Hays State University men’s basketball team has played in tight ball games. Both resulted in overtime losses where the Tigers wasted big nights from star players.
Brady Werth had 30 points in an overtime loss to Sioux Falls in the second game of the season, and Hadley Gillum notched 36 in a double-overtime loss at then No. 9 Colorado School of Mines.
Until about the final seven minutes of Thursday’s MIAA opener, it looked as though things were going to go south again for FHSU — despite another 30-point night for Gillum, the Plainville graduate and lone senior on the team.
This time, though, FHSU capitalized on some big defense down the stretch and earned a 76-69 win against Missouri Southern State University at Gross Memorial Coliseum. FHSU closed the game on a 14-4 run through the final 3 minutes, 24 seconds.
“That’s exactly what we needed,” said Gillum, who hit 9 of 13 shots from the floor and 10 off 11 from the foul line for another stellar night. “Come out and finally close a game.”
Southern didn’t make it easy, though it looked that way for the first 10 minutes.
FHSU trailed 2-0 but broke loose with a 15-0 run, a stretch where Gillum scored 10 of his 30 points.
“Hadley was great tonight,” Tiger coach Mark Johnson said. “Just had to isolate him, get him the ball and keep feeding him, keep feeding him.
“He came up really big.”
However hot the start, though, things went south for the Tigers. Some early foul trouble to Werth forced the Tigers into a small lineup, and eventually a good 3-point shooting Lions team was able to gain control. Elyjah Clark hit his lone 3 of the night with 6:58 to play before half, giving the Lions their first lead since a 2-0 start. MSSU hit one more 3 in the half, but did most of the damage at the free throw line in the final two minutes of the half to take a 37-31 lead by intermission.
“We’re the type of team we just have to be tough in every aspect of the game,” Gillum said.
Southern controlled the game until about the 14-minute mark of the second half. Gillum hit a 3, then followed it with a jumper to cut the Lions’ lead to one. Payton Stephens, who had 11 points for the Tigers, then made 1 of 2 free throws to tie the game at the 13:15 mark.
Still, MSSU built back up a seven-point lead after a 3-pointer by DJ Carr.
Trailing by seven with 7 minutes left, Johnson said the Tigers turned on the defense — and Werth and Grant Holmes came up with big supporting plays.
“We’ve been down this road before. Had a couple we haven’t been able to finish them out,” Johnson said. “I thought we did a great job in the last seven minutes defensively to get the stops and win the game.”
Trailing 65-62, Werth got an offensive board off a Trey O’Neil miss and scored the putback. Then he came up with a big rebound that led to free throws on the other end for Gillum, who gave the Tigers the lead back — this time for good.
“He made it hard for them to score,” Johnson said of Werth. “That’s how we got stops.”
On the next possession, Holmes hit a 3-pointer from the right wing that put FHSU up four, and it was the Tigers’ game from there.
“Grant Holmes hits one down in the corner. That was huge,” Gillum said.
Now, FHSU prepares for Pittsburg State, which is coached by former Missouri coach Kim Anderson and has been lighting up the scoreboard this year.
A tall, athletic team, the Gorillas sit 5-3 and lost 101-89 on Thursday at Nebraska-Kearney. However, every team that has beat the Gorillas this season has had to cross the century mark to do it. Game time is 4 p.m. Saturday at GMC.
“Going to be very challenging for us,” Johnson said. “We have to make sure we come out here and play the whole game like we did the last seven minutes (Thursday). We’re going to have to be tougher than them.”