In a game befitting postseason play, one thing appeared to prevent the fifth-seeded Fort Hays State University men’s basketball team from putting away visiting Northeastern State, the 12 seed, Monday night at Gross Memorial Coliseum
The Tigers led for more than 35 of the 40 minutes but need to use late free throws to extend their lead for a 61-53 win. The victory over the 5-23 RiverHawks saw FHSU on to the Thursday’s MIAA quarterfinals in Kansas City, but the margin would’ve likely been more comfortable if not for the Tigers’ 18 turnovers.
“We struggled all night, turned it over too much,” FHSU coach Mark Johnson said. “If we don’t turn it over (so much), I think it’s probably a 10-point win.”
While the Tigers nearly won by double figures, they trailed by two with eight minutes to play. What followed was the play of the game for the Tiger coach.
“Even though it was a really close game, the most important shot of the night came with about seven-and-a-half minutes to go,” Johnson said. “They got up two, and we had been struggling mightily on offense. Trey (O’Neil) steps up and hits a 3, gives us a one-point lead. It kinda just settled us in, and we were able to close it the rest of the way.”
O’Neil’s third triple of the game put the Tigers up 45-44 before a pair of JaQuan Smith free throws made it a three-point game.
The RiverHawks battled back to tie the game at 48 with 3:35 to play after a Juvon Turner layup. Smith then scored the next four points before Hadley Gillum put the Tigers up six with 1:37 to play.
“Hadley was tremendous all night long, and then I thought JaQuan really picked it up the last 10 minutes of the game,” Johnson said.
Gillum led all scorers with 21 points and added 12 rebounds for a double-double.
“Things were clicking,” the FHSU junior said. “Guys were finding me, and the ball was getting in the hole.”
FHSU extended its lead to eighth after going 7 of 10 from the free throw line in the final 61 seconds.
“Both of our seasons are on the line, so obviously you’re going to get everybody’s best right now,” Gillum said.
Despite leading by seven midway through the first half, the Tigers needed a Rob Davis 3-pointer in the final seconds of the half to take a 32-30 lead to the break.
Davis joined O’Neil with 12 points, while Smith added 10. The high workload appears to be taking its toll on the Tigers’ leading scorer, which puts more emphasis on the Tiger bigs.
“He doesn’t have the explosiveness he had a month ago,” Johnson said. “Really, how we’ve been able to continue to have some type of success is Hadley and JaQuan have elevated their game and played at a high, high level.”
Tanner Mouse was the only RiverHawk in double figures with 14 points. FHSU limited NSU to 37 percent from the field and 23 percent from deep.
“That probably won us the game,” Johnson said. “We had to guard, and that’s what we have to do to be successful. We haven’t really outscored many teams this year and won. It’s gotta be this type of game.”
Now, the Tigers set their sights on Thursday’s opponent, Missouri Southern (8:30 p.m.). The Lions own an 84-81 home win over the Tigers from December. The issue in that game, as it was Monday in Hays, was turnovers.
FHSU turned it over 23 times in Joplin, Mo., and doing that again will likely end the Tigers’ MIAA Tournament run shy of the semifinals.
“They’re very similar to Northeastern as far as they’re going to trap and make you turn it over,” Johnson said. “If you don’t turn it over, you get great shots. The biggest difference is they’re taller, longer, stronger, more athletic, so we’re going to have to do a great job of taking care of the ball.”