Mark Johnson has all but accepted the fact his team is going to win some ugly games. The head coach of the Fort Hays State University is quick to point that out.
And at this juncture with seven games left in the regular season, it might not be hard to argue that’s the only way the Tigers are going to have any success.
But, coming off a difficult road trip in the MIAA during the weekend, the Tigers’ skipper wasn’t going to worry about how his team got a win Wednesday night against visiting Emporia State University at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
He was just glad it was one in the win column, and the Tigers can stay in the hunt for a top four finish in the MIAA race. The Tigers outlasted the Hornets 58-50 with some gut-check free throws late. The win pushes the Tigers to 13-8 overall and 6-6 in league play and in a tie for sixth.
“You’ll take it any way you can,” Johnson said. “Definitely not a thing of beauty.”
Tiger junior Trey O’Neil hit a layup to break a 47-47 tie, then seconds later knocked in a 3-pointer from the corner to make it a five-point game. It was free throws from there.
The Tigers survived on a night where neither team really could muster much offensively, playing to a 12-12 tie at the 11:21 mark of the first half and a 26-22 FHSU lead by halftime.
“We just kind of grinded it out,” said Tiger junior Grant Holmes, who had 10 points on a 2-of-6 shooting effort, mixed with his 5-for-5 showing from the free throw line. “We got stops, rebounded and came out with the ‘W.’ That’s all that matters.”
That grind-it-out mentality included containing one of the best scoring guards in the conference, Brandon Hall, to just five points, and keeping one of the better rebounders in Stephaun Limuel off the glass. The MIAA’s best on the offensive glass gave the Hornets (8-13, 3-9) just four second chances.
““We guarded pretty well, did a good job not letting their bigs get loose for 3s,” Johnson said. “They’re physical, big, athletic guys. Down the stretch we limited them to one-and-done, and that was big for us.”
Holmes’ two free throws with 23 seconds left pushed the Tigers’ lead to seven, then with 11 seconds left, he hit two more to push the Tiger lead back to six after ESU had narrowed the gap.
The free throw line was a bright spot for the Tigers’ shot chart as FHSU went 17-of-20.
“It’s just confidence. I put hours and hours in the gym,” Holmes said. “Just knock them down.”
Perhaps an even bigger positive was the return of junior center Brady Werth. Out the last two weeks with illness, Werth returned Wednesday, and even though he was visibly far from 100 percent, he made his presence known.
He finished with a team-high 15 points, playing 25 minutes and was 7-of-9 from the free throw line.
“We missed Brady a lot,” Holmes said. “I don’t know how many minutes he played, it wasn’t his full. But just having him out there, with his size, and what he can provide just helps a lot.”
Plus, the Tigers were able to pull out a win on a night where senior Hadley Gillum scored just four points. It was just the third time the Plainville product has been in single digits this season.
“Good win for us in the fact he only had four points,” Johnson said. “Normally, we wouldn’t be able to pull that out.”
The Tigers will look to carry the momentum of a grind-it-out win into Saturday’s 4 p.m. contest with Washburn University. The Ichabods, who beat the Tigers 69-58 in December, are tied atop the MIAA with defending national champion Northwest Missouri State. Washburn (15-5, 9-2) plays at Nebraska-Kearney (9-11, 5-6) on Thursday.