By AUSTIN COLBERTemail@example.com
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Had sophomore guard Nikola Kacperska’s 3-point shot in the final seconds gone in to force overtime, it would have elevated her to true hero status. Although, many could argue she deserves that nametag regardless as it was her play that carried the Fort Hays State University women’s basketball team on Sunday.
However, even a career-high 19 points from Kacperska wasn’t enough as FHSU fell to Emporia State University, 49-46, in the championship game of the MIAA Tournament, played at Municipal Auditorium,
“She was one of the only ones that had any energy today,” FHSU coach Tony Hobson said of Kacperska. “We had a hard time executing today for some reason. You can always find an excuse but there really isn’t one, other than we didn’t execute, stood around a lot and watched Niki dribble, because she didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
FHSU (28-3), playing in its first MIAA Tournament championship game, shot 30.6 percent and made just 3 of 17 from 3-point range. ESU (25-4) wasn’t much better, shooting 32.7 percent but managed to overcome a late push by the Tigers to win its third consecutive MIAA Tournament championship and avenge a pair of losses to FHSU from earlier in the season.
“We were looking forward to trying to redeem ourselves and give them a better effort than we gave in the first two matchups and I thought we did that,” ESU coach Jory Collins said. “Two really good defensive teams going at it and points were hard to come by. Every possession mattered. Ball could have went either way two or three times. We were fortunate to win that game. But we had a lot of people step up and make plays.”
ESU, ranked No. 10 in the country, led 15-6 early against the No. 4-ranked Tigers. But FHSU rallied to tie the game at 19 at the midway point of the first half, a couple of baskets from sophomore Jill Faxon bringing them even.
However, the Tigers were held to only two points over the final 9:30 of the half, a 3-pointer at the buzzer by ESU’s Kyrstie Miller giving the Hornets a 30-21 advantage at the break.
“We kind of lost the ball a little bit there and it was fumbled around and she was in the right spot,” Collins said. “It’s great momentum going into the half to stretch it from six to nine.”
Shooting just 29 percent at the half, nothing improved in a hurry for the Tigers in the second half. Among those struggling the most was junior guard Chelsea Mason, who had been lights out from 3-point range in the first two MIAA Tournament games. But midway through Sunday’s game she was just 1 of 9 from the field and 0 for 5 from deep, something Collins admitted he was hoping for as Mason’s 3-point shooting was a difference maker in their first two meetings this season.
“Poor shot selection was one of the reasons we shot so poorly. And impatience, especially in the first half,” Hobson said. “I thought our defense and rebounding were good. Defensively, that’s all that kept us in the game because we were really out of sorts offensively.”
Behind its defense, FHSU closed to within a point with 3:31 to play on a basket by Kacperska. ESU responded with a 3-pointer by sophomore Kathryn Flott to push the lead out to four points, a quick basket by FHSU senior center Kate Lehman cutting it back to one possession with 2:48 remaining.
Lehman made 1 of 2 free-throw attempts with 1:35 to play to cut ESU’s lead to 45-44, and it was a mid-range jumper from Kacperska with 55 seconds remaining that gave FHSU the lead at 46-45, its first lead of the game.
“It’s a championship game and everyone wants to win,” Kacperska said of where the Tigers found the energy to rally at the end. “I’ve been here last year and it’s bad to lose. It kind of was in my mind. I didn’t want to see us again crying. I want to win so bad.”
The lead didn’t last long, ESU sophomore guard Kelly Moten scoring with 31 seconds to play on a driving layup. Moten missed the and-1 free-throw attempt to keep the Hornets’ lead at a point, FHSU’s Jill Faxon missing a 3-pointer on the other end. Moten responded by making a pair of free throws with seven seconds to play, Kacperska’s 3-pointer with time ticking away coming up short.
“The ball wasn’t supposed to be in my hands,” Moten said of the play that gave ESU the lead back at 47-46. “They basically gave me my right side, which is my strongest hand. I just took matters into my own hands. If I would have missed the layup I would have been in trouble.”
Moten was the only player in double figures for the Hornets, finishing with 16 points and 12 rebounds. She was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, with senior teammate Merissa Quick joining her on the all-tournament team. Also making the five-man team were Kacperska and Lehman, University of Central Missouri’s Revonnia Howard the final selection.
Two other Tigers found double-digit scoring behind Kacperska, Lehman bringing in 13 points and 13 rebounds and Faxon scoring 11.
“Give Emporia State credit. They guarded us very well. They changed some things from last time we played them,” Hobson said. “In these championship games, a lot of times (they) are ugly. Just like todays was just a battle. Nobody could make a basket. It was probably sloppier than it would have been if we would have played them on Friday.”
Despite the loss, FHSU likely will host the upcoming Central region of the NCAA Division II basketball tournament. The announcement of location and opponents is set to be announced late Sunday evening, with the NCAA Selection Show set for 9 p.m.
In the men's championship game of the MIAA Tournament on Sunday, Pittsburg State University defeated Missouri Southern State University 91-65 to claim its first tournament title and earn the league's automatic NCAA Tournament berth.