The Fort Hays State men’s basketball team got off to a rough start in its first game without starting point guard Craig Nicholson in the starting lineup, falling to Emporia State 75-63 Saturday evening at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
The senior guard was reduced to watching from the bench with a protective boot on his left foot. The Tigers will have to find a way to make it work without their starting point guard, as Nicholson is expected to miss an extended part of the season, if the not its remainder.
Without Nicholson, the Tigers are without one of the team’s best penetrators and scorers, not to mention the senior guard’s ability to run the Tiger offense.
“We weren’t a real athletic team before Craig got hurt, obviously now you take away the quickest guy off the bounce,” FHSU coach Mark Johnson said. “That makes a big deal. We really struggled offensively with taking care of the ball the whole game.”
The Tigers finished with 22 turnovers compared to 10 for the Hornets.
Freshman Kyler Kinnamon stepped into the starting lineup with mixed results. He scored 10 points, dished out a team-high seven assists and recorded five steals in 36 minutes on the court. On the flip side, the freshman from McPherson turned it over seven times in his first collegiate start.
“He’s put in a tough spot right now,” Johnson said. “Obviously, he turned it over too much, but that’s partly his teammates. We didn’t do a great job of helping each other out tonight. He kinda got thrown to the fire early in his career. That’s unfortunate for him, but I thought he handled it as well as he could and overall did a positive job.”
If Kinnamon is to be the Tigers’ point guard for the remainder of the season, his coach believes he’ll only get better as he grows more comfortable.
“The more he gets out there, the better and better he’s going to keep doing,” Johnson said. “He’s had a really good start to his career.”
The Tigers got off to a strong start on Saturday. Kinnamon set Tiger big man Dom Samac up for a layup, giving FHSU a 21-11 lead midway through the first half.
Samac extended the Tigers’ lead to 14 after four consecutive makes from the free-throw line.
“I thought we were guarding very well and playing with great effort,” Johnson said. “We just didn’t have the ability to continue that. Some guys logged a lot of minutes in the first half. Our depth right with Craig (Nicholson) and Trey (O’Neil) out is hurting us a little bit.”
A late Emporia State run cut the Tigers’ lead to three before a Kenny Enoch jumper gave FHSU a 33-28 lead after 20 minutes.
The second 20 minutes was a much different story. Tiger turnovers and tired legs allowed Emporia to take the lead for good on a Josh Pedersen 3-pointer five minutes into the second half. Pedersen showed why the Fort Hays State coaches wanted him in black and gold, making 8 of 10 from the field for a game-23 points.
“He’s a very good player,” Johnson said. “He’s athletic. He can shoot it at the four. We really liked him out of high school.”
Rob Davis hit his only 3-pointer to cut the Hornet lead to three with 13 minutes to play before an Emporia State exclamation point.
After grabbing zero offensive rebounds in the first half, the Hornets found success crashing the boards in the second, finishing with 11. None was more noticeable than DePaul transfer Charles McKinney’s emphatic put-back dunk over a Tiger defender with a little more than 12 minutes to play.
“The second half, we got overwhelmed by them,” Johnson said. “We couldn’t stop them. Offensively, they made shots. We couldn’t keep them off the glass.”
McKinney received a technical foul for celebrating the dunk, but the momentum garnered may have been worth it. Davis knocked down the technical free throws for FHSU, but a 13-2 ESU run followed.
The Hornets lead reached 16 points with just a few minutes to play, and ESU coasted to its second win in MIAA play.
“You gotta give Emporia a lot of credit,” Johnson said. “We just weren’t tough enough in the second half like we have to be.”
Samac, Davis and Enoch led the Tigers with 11 points apiece, while Kinnamon finished with 10. Drew Kite led the Tigers on the glass with 10 rebounds.
The Tigers get a one-game break from conference play when York College comes to town on Monday.