ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — When two of the nation’s top Division II team’s broke for halftime Thursday, more than a few people inside the MWSU Fieldhouse thought the game was over.

Missouri Western didn’t get that memo.

The No. 5 Griffons put on a second-half clinic in a 77-75 win over No. 3 Fort Hays State in front of 3,275 screaming fans. It was Western’s largest home crowd in nearly a decade.

The game literally came down to the wire.

A trey by the Griffons’ Sarafina Handy with 34 seconds to play gave the Griffons a 74-72 lead, but it was a trio of LaQuinta Jefferson free throws in the waning moments that sealed the win for Western.

A half-court shot by Tigers senior Beth Bohslavsky at the buzzer banked in for the game’s final points.

The game was as much about the journey as it was the destination for the Griffons (18-0, 12-0 MIAA).

Down by 18 points at halftime, Western coach Rob Edmisson asked his players if they had his back or if it was going to be a one-way street. After the break, he got his answer.

“I admit I had some doubts heading into the locker room at halftime,” Edmisson said. “Fort Hays was just so locked in.

“I challenged their character at half. I challenged them individually and I called them all out.”

The Griffons answered their coach’s challenge by shooting 54 percent from the field and 43 percent from behind the arc. But is was defense that led the way to Western outscoring Fort Hays 22-9 in the third quarter to cut the Tigers’ lead to five and make the Griffons believe the game belonged to them.

“I thought Missouri Western came out and played with a lot more intensity,” said Fort Hays coach Tony Hobson. “Defensively, they were way better not letting us get into our shots like we did in the first half.

“We got on our heels a little bit and got tentative and quit attacking the basket.”

Fort Hays (16-2, 10-2) opened the game with a hot shooting hand, but a re-energized Griffons squad held them to just 27 percent from the field after halftime.

“That’s the best comeback I’ve coached in against a quality team,” Edmisson said. “Midway through the third quarter I started doing the psychological stuff. I told them they were going to win the game it was just a question of by what margin.”

In the first half, Fort Hays shot 50 percent from the field and matched that percentage from 3-point territory to rack up 51 points by the intermission. Even worse for Western, the Tigers did it with their hottest shooter sitting on the bench for the majority of the first 20 minutes.

Fort Hays senior guard Chelsea Mason scorched the Griffons for 14 first-quarter points in just nine minutes of playing time. She spent the rest of the half on the bench with two early fouls.

Despite her absence, the Tigers took a 51-33 lead into halftime.

That’s when Western changed its mindset and decided to get stingy.

“We came out in the second half and really turned up the D on them,” said MWSU junior guard Chelsea Dewey. “We got up in their grill a little bit and they got frustrated.

“The crowd helped us a lot.”

With the Fort Hays offense held at bay and appearing fatigued, Western chipped away until a Miliakere Koyamainavure layup with 2:26 drew the teams even at 71.

A Taylor Chandler free throw with 1:31 to play gave the Tigers a one-point lead that would be their last.

On the next possession, Handy ignored a closing Fort Hays defender and connected from behind the arc to give the Griffons the lead for good. Edmisson said he had no nerves about Handy’s decision.

“Sarafina Handy is a special player,” he said. “There wasn’t any doubt she was going to take that shot.”

At that point, the Griffons and the home crowd started to believe the game belonged to them. The Tigers couldn’t answer Handy’s salvo and that set up Jefferson’s game-sealing free throws.

During a timeout, Edmisson told his team what to do.

“He told us to go out and finish the game out and to get it into someone’s hands that we knew could make it,” Handy said. “And Q knocked them down.”

Jefferson said the players took Edmisson’s challenge to heart and played the final 20 minutes for the coach who had fought for them from the bench. The senior pre-season All-American said it came down to the Griffons wanting it more.

“You can’t stop fighting until there are zeroes on the clock,” she said. “That’s always what we try to do.

“We just have to take care of each other and take care of our coach.”

Jefferson finished with a game-high 18 points and Handy added 15. Every other Griffon that played in the game scored at least five points.

Mhykeah Baez led the Griffons on the glass, pulling down nine rebounds. As a team, Missouri Western out-rebounded Fort Hays 50-35. Dewey scored seven and added seven assists.

It was Missouri Western’s first win over a top-5 team since defeating No. 4 Washburn in the MWSU Fieldhouse in 2010 and its second over a top-10 team in the last five days. It boosted the Griffons to a two-game lead atop the MIAA standings.