Dom Samac walked through the doors of Gross Memorial Coliseum on Thursday with a chip on his shoulder.
One week ago, the 6-foot-9 senior forward for the Fort Hays State University men’s basketball team had his worst rebounding game of the season. Facing off with Lindenwood’s 7-1 center, Stanislas Heili, Samac allowed 15 rebounds and snagged only five himself.
“Coach (Mark Johnson) told me, ‘Dom, you have to rebound better,’ ” Samac said. “So I tried to focus more on rebounding tonight and tried to snatch as much as I could.”
His rebounding effort was improved, to say the least. In fact, his 13 rebounds in a 84-74 win against Northeastern State tied a career-high to go with his second double-double of the season.
Samac was one of three Tigers to reach double figures, scoring 13 points while blocking three shots. The win improves Fort Hays to 12-4 on the season and 6-4 in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association, leaving the Tigers one game removed from first place in the league.
Northeastern State fell to 4-10 with an MIAA record of 3-7. The loss dropped the RiverHawks to 1-21 on the road in two years under Jason Tinsley.
Johnson’s squad dropped back-to-back road contests last week to Lindenwood and Lincoln, making Thursday’s contest crucial in terms of keeping pace in the race for the top of the MIAA. Samac said his head coach made that message clear prior to the game.
“Coach told us before the game, ‘Guys, this is our house. We need to bounce back and we need to find a way to get a win tonight.’ We were coming from two losses and we knew we had to play hard today, hit open shots, get the ball down low and, especially, rebound the ball,” Samac said. “We just had to out-tough them and grab those rebounds and limit them to one shot, which is what we did.”
After Kenny Enoch opened the game with five straight points, the Tigers struggled to find an offensive rhythm. The RiverHawks, who forced the Tigers into nine turnovers in the first half, answered with a 7-0 run to gain their only lead of the night.
Rob Davis and Dom Samac combined to score 10 straight for Fort Hays as part of a 12-3 run in response.
Craig Nicholson’s first assist of the night came on Davis’ first of three 3-pointers in the first half, pushing Nicholson ahead of Mark Wilson for second in career assists in program history. Nicholson’s night ended with 15 points and five assists, giving him 581 for his career.
Although the RiverHawks climbed within seven points, Davis’ 15 points on 6-of-6 shooting in the first half pushed the Tigers ahead by as much as 16. Davis finished the night with a game-high 24 points, tying NSU’s Killven Samuel.
The arrival of Davis, a transfer from Pratt CC, has brought a security blanket to the Tigers offensively. Davis has scored 20-plus points six times this season while being one of the most accurate three-point shooters in the conference.
“He’s a great shooter. If you leave him open, he’s going to hit a three,” Samac said. “He’s gonna either hit a three, or if you come close to him he’s gonna take you one-on-one and score. If he’s not gonna score, he’s gonna assist to a big guy. That’s what makes him a good player.”
Fort Hays went to the locker room with a 45-29 lead thanks to the RiverHawks converting on just 4 of 19 attempted 3-pointers in the half. Northeastern State shot just 36.4 percent from the field in the opening half, compared to Fort Hays’ mark of better than 60 percent.
The Tigers appeared to be destined to roll past NSU and snap a two-game losing streak suffered last week. The complacency showed early in the second half with the RiverHawks opening on an 8-0 run to cut the deficit to eight.
“We just kinda relaxed and kinda enter the second half lackadaisical,” Samac said. “We have to be more concentrated and more focused and more thirsty for the win.”
The Tigers answered with a 14-6 stretch to bring the lead back to 16.
Despite being called for eight fouls in as many minutes to start the second half, the rebounding woes and inability of their opponent to shoot from three-point range kept the lead in double digits the rest of the way. The RiverHawks, who rank second-to-last in the MIAA in three-point shooting, made just 8 of 29 (27.6 percent) from three-point range. Although they entered Thursday as the second best rebounding team in the conference, the RiverHawks grabbed just 24 rebounds to Fort Hays’ 41 on the night.
“We just did it in practice,” Samac said of the Tigers’ dominating night on the glass. “We harped on it for two or three days, just doing rebounding drills, boxing out really hard, and it worked out.”
While a plus-17 rebound advantage is pleasing to Johnson, the Tigers turned the ball over 20 times, leading to 24 RiverHawk points.
A new face joined the Tigers’ bench as redshirt freshman Payton Stephens watched his first Fort Hays game with his new teammates. A 6-foot-4 transfer guard from Stephen F. Austin, Stephens was a teammate of Kyler Kinnamon’s at McPherson when the Bulldogs went 25-0 on the way to the Class 4A championship in Kansas in 2015. Stephens was the state tournament’s most outstanding player and a first-team All-State selection while averaging 16 points per game as a senior. Stephens will not play this season.
With a return to the court at 4 p.m. Saturday against Central Oklahoma (8-8, 4-6), the case for the Tigers to take the MIAA crown will continue to grow with consistency in the coming weeks. Despite the Bronchos’ sub-.500 record in the MIAA, Johnson knows how dangerous of a team they are, having compiled that record with their first seven games in the MIAA on the road.
Following Saturday’s home contest, the Tigers play just four more inside Gross Memorial Coliseum, three coming against teams among the top-half of the league. Having already defeated Central Missouri, the Tigers will look to avenge losses to Lincoln and Lindenwood in mid-February in their final home games against two teams tied with NWMSU atop the MIAA.
Even in the near future, the Tigers could head to Northwest Missouri State (10-5, 7-3) next Saturday (Jan. 23) with a chance to climb to the top of the MIAA standings. And for the Tigers to make the possibility a reality, they need Samac to have games like he did Thursday.
“I thought Dom was locked in on the glass and did a great job,” Johnson said. “He was still disappointed with Lindenwood; they hurt us on the offensive glass from their five position, and I don’t think he wanted that to happen again.”