The timing couldn’t be any better for Jared Vitztum.
His shooting performance Saturday for the Fort Hays State University men’s basketball team didn’t hurt matters much either.
The redshirt freshman — a Thomas More Prep-Marian High School grad — picked a great day to have his breakout performance in a Tiger uniform.
Facing a program he considered for a bit before signing with the Tigers last year, Vitztum played his best game in FHSU’s 78-69 victory against University of Nebraska-Kearney at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
“Really proud of him,” Tiger head coach Mark Johnson said of Vitztum, who collected 15 points, hit three 3s, and was charged most of the night with guarding Trey Lansman, arguably the best big man in the MIAA. “He wasn’t afraid of the moment.”
Vitztum’s hot night was a part of an outstanding second-half shooting performance that helped FHSU snap a two-game skid and climb back above .500 in MIAA play at 11-5 overall and 4-3 in conference. UNK fell to 6-10, 2-5.
“Just feels good to be out there,” said Vitztum, whose three 3s where part of a run-silencing performance when UNK attempted to climb out of a double-digit hole in the second half. “We just fought hard. My teammates set me up well tonight, and I just knocked down shots.”
As hot as the shooting (72 percent) was for FHSU in the second half to hold off the Lopers, the Tigers’ defense was equally impressive to start the game.
A quality offensive club in UNK (79 points per game) shot just 24 percent in the first half.
“Our guys came out and played really hard that first half,” Johnson said.
The 17th-year head coach said the staff challenged the team to make Saturday a “next-level” game.
“Couldn’t have guarded them any better (than the first half),” Johnson said.
FHSU struggled to score before halftime, though, leading by just nine.
Then the flood gates opened as the two teams each scored 49 second-half points.
“We knew that was coming,” Johnson said. “It was a tale of two halves.”
Tiger senior Hadley Gillum got going in the second half. After FHSU led by nine, Gillum scored six points and all of a sudden FHSU was up 17 with 17 minutes to play. That’s when UNK started to chip away.
“They made a run. They’re a great team,” Vitztum said. “We just need to keep grinding, don’t let the pressure get to us.”
The bulk of Lansman’s 27 points and 10 rebounds came after halftime, but UNK didn’t cut the deficit to single digits until the 4:27 mark on a steal and dunk for the MIAA’s leading scorer. He got his numbers, but Johnson was surprised to see Lansman’s final line, considering the job Vitztum and junior Brady Werth did inside. Vitztum agreed.
“It’s tough for us to guard him. Just have to be tough on him, be real physical,” Vitztum said. “He got his numbers, but I thought we did a good job on him.”
A combination of Gillum, Vitztum, and junior Trey O’Neil made sure the threat didn’t get to close. The Lopers cut the lead to eight with 2:55 to play, but Vitztum quickly hit a layup, and a layup by O’Neil put the lead back to 12 with 45 seconds left.
Lansman hit a wild 3-pointer with 15 seconds to play to set the final margin.
Gillum finished with 23 points to lead the Tigers, the bulk of it coming in the second half, and was a rebound shy of a double-double. Werth chipped in 14, and junior guard Marcus Cooper enjoyed one of his better games with 11 points.
The Tigers are off until Thursday when they play host to Missouri Western State University, a 7:30 p.m. start at Gross Memorial Coliseum.