By AUSTIN COLBERT
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — At Friday’s postgame news conference, following the Tigers’ MIAA Tournament quarterfinal win over Northeastern State University, Kate Lehman called out the Jennies before she even knew they would meet. Fort Hays State University’s senior center wanted to avenge three-straight season-ending losses to the University of Central Missouri, and she got her wish on Saturday.
In an ugly, defensive battle, top-seeded FHSU beat No. 5 seed UCM 59-53 in the tournament semifinals at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo., and advanced to today’s 3:30 p.m. championship game for the first time in program history.
“I’m really glad we won because I kind of talked a big game. So it was good to follow it up with a good win,” Lehman said. “When you have girls that will play together like we will play together … it would have been easy that game to point fingers and to play the blame game, but we didn’t. We pulled together. We might have had a little bit of adversity but we fought through it really well.”
Lehman led all players with 18 points, including 13 rebounds and five blocked shots. In the process the Newton native became the first player in NCAA Division II women’s basketball history to surpass 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 blocked shots for a career.
Most importantly, it all but assures FHSU’s chances to host the NCAA regional tournament regardless of what happens in today’s MIAA championship game.
“Kate was pretty adamant we needed to win this game and she played like it,” FHSU coach Tony Hobson said. “I thought it was exactly what we figured it would be. We knew it would be a tough game. It would be physical, intense, and it was kind of a reversal of roles because last year we were playing for our lives to get into the regional tournament and I think this year they are. That just adds fuel to the fire.”
FHSU (28-2) overcame 11 first-half turnovers to lead 26-20 at halftime. The Tigers never trailed in the second half, but had the game tied on a couple of occasions, the final deadlock coming at 46-46 with 5:53 to play. A 5-0 run, which included three Lehman free throws, ended a good stretch by UCM (21-9).
The game’s key play came with less than two minutes to go when sophomore point guard Niki Kacperska made a steal and layup to push the Tigers’ lead back out to five and essentially put the game away.
“It’s a huge responsibility to know my teammates count on me,” Kacperska said about starting in place of injured junior Beth Bohuslavsky. “Of course everyone knows I’m a pretty crazy player. But so far I think it’s OK. It’s fine. I always can do a better job. And I’m looking forward to seeing what we have tomorrow.”
Behind Lehman’s 18 points, FHSU received 17 from Mason — who made 5 of 9 from 3-point range — and 12 from Kacperska. Shelby Winkelmann led UCM with 14 points.
“It was their turn to tell us to go home,” UCM coach Dave Slifer said after the Jennies ended FHSU’s season in the tournament semifinals the last two years. “I’d like to give credit to their defense. We go 0 for 10 from three. … I can’t believe we were even in the game. We’ll tip our caps to Fort Hays who is going to host a regional and well-deservedly.”
The regional announcements won’t be made official until late Sunday evening following the tournament finals. The Tigers will take on No. 3 seed Emporia State University at 3:30 p.m. The Hornets defeated No. 2 seed Pittsburg State, 67-53 in Saturday’s late semifinal. It’s the fifth straight time ESU has made the tourney title game, and it was won the last two.