Putting points on the board was a struggle for a majority of the first 45 minutes of play for No. 3 Fort Hays State on Saturday, but the women’s second-half defense provided enough stops to allow the team to leave its home court with a 59-56 overtime win over Central Oklahoma.
The visiting Bronchos lead for all but 1:16 of the opening half and extended the lead to 14 midway through the third quarter before FHSU clamped down.
Paige Lunsford started the rally with layup before junior Jill Faxon provided a much-needed offensive surge. After starting the game 1 of 9 from the field, Faxon went on a 9-0 run by herself on three consecutive 3-pointers. Her final triple earned the biggest celebration and cut the UCO lead to 41-38 with 2:27 left in the third quarter.
“When shots don’t fall, it’s always tough, but once we get one shot going, I think it kinda eases us up a little bit,” Faxon said.
Those that spend a lot of time with one of the Tigers’ leading scorers had faith in the junior despite her early game struggles.
“That’s what’s great about Jill and Chelsea (Mason),” Lunsford said. “They have short memories. They don’t let the last shot affect the next one. Those two, it’s always just a matter of time before they get hot.
The Tigers entered the final quarter still trailing by three points thanks to a block by Tatyana Legette and a missed Bronchos layup late in the third.
The FHSU defense provided opportunities to cut into the lead early in the fourth quarter, but the Tigers were unable to score until Lunsford split a pair of free throws with 5:37 left in the game. By that time, head coach Tony Hobson’s team was without starting point guard Beth Bohuslavsky, who fouled out moments earlier.
After Haley Weathers put the Bronchos back up five, Faxon made a layup and Chelsea Mason made a pair at the line to get within a point with just under three minutes to play.
Stingy defense provided FHSU multiple opportunities to retake the lead. The Tigers finally did when Lunsford again got to the hoop for a layup with just over a minute left. The Tigers most recent lead prior to Lunsford’s make was at 10-9 in the first quarter.
“The last five minutes, we really clamped down and played good D,” Hobson said. “That’s all that allowed us to get back in it.”
After Faxon grabbed a Olivia Mason miss, UCO sent Niki Kacperska to the line. Kacperska split her two attempts to put the Tigers up two with 21 seconds left on the clock.
UCO tied the game with seven seconds left when Mason was fouled by a FHSU defender and made a pair of clutch free throws.
Elle Stein thought she was headed to the line with a chance to win the game at the end of regulation after she forced a shot up after grabbing an offensive rebound, but the officials checked the monitor and decided the foul came after time expired.
Weathers put the Bronchos up four with a 3-pointer less than two minutes into overtime before the Tigers mounted another comeback. Mason connected on her only make from three-point range on FHSU’s ensuing possession, one of her two makes on 14 field goals.
As Lunsford said earlier, the Tigers stand behind their top scorers through offensive lulls.
“That’s why we run our offense is to get open shots,” Hobson said. “If we quit taking them, we aren’t going to score at all, so I have faith in them.”
Stein gave the Tigers the lead with 2:24 to play after Taylor Chandler came down with a defensive rebound. Lunsford and Kacperska kept the Bronchos at bay, closing the game 4 for 4 from the free throw line. FHSU was only in the position to put the game away from the line thanks to their defense down the stretch. Of the Bronchos’ 24 turnovers, 15 came in the second half and overtime.
“If we didn’t have had that turnover differential, we wouldn’t of had a chance,” Hobson said. “When you have 13 less turnovers, that’s what keeps you in the game.”
“We were just not into it defensively in the first half,” Lunsford added. “They were getting way too many shots and too many threes. The second half, we just buckled down.”The Tigers found themselves trailing early in the game, as they struggled to defend the perimeter. Weathers opened the scoring with a 3-pointer. Back-to-back makes from McKenzie Solberg made it 9-7 UCO midway through the first quarter. The Bronchos lead 20-15 after one, following Marley Anderson’s step-back 3-pointer as time expired. The visitors made 6 of 7 from deep in the opening quarter. They finished the game 8-25 and did not make a triple in the third or fourth quarters.
“We knew that’s what they did,” Hobson said. “It’s like we had to see them do it to us before we believed it.”
Weathers hit her second 3-pointer of the game in the final minute of the half, helping UCO to a 34-24 halftime lead.
A three-point play from Solberg and a layup from Megan Womack pushed the lead to 14 early in the third quarter.
Lunsford stepped up with the Tigers’ leading scorers struggling to score effeciently. She made 6 of 13 from the field and 8 of 12 from the line for a game-high 22 points.
“She’s playing at a real high level right now, thank goodness,” Hobson said. “She struggled at the line the last couple games, but she’s getting there a lot because she’s so aggressive.”
Faxon, the only other Tiger in double figures, added 13 points and 12 rebounds.
The win keeps FHSU (16-1, 10-1 MIAA) in second place in the conference standings ahead of Thursday’s game against unbeaten Missouri Western.