By AUSTIN COLBERT
Fort Hays State University women's basketball coach Tony Hobson hopes his players are enjoying their recent success, because he sure doesn't have time to. Not when a date with Emporia State University is looming tonight in the championship game of the NCAA Division II Central Region tournament.
"I think our kids are enjoying it, being in the moment pretty well. As a coach, I don't at all right now," Hobson said, following Saturday's 70-54 semifinal win over Wayne State College. "And that's my job. I need to let my players enjoy it while I do the work and get them ready to play the next game. So hopefully they are having a good experience and when this is all over then you have time to reflect a little bit. Right now we have another game to prepare for Monday."
And that game is a big one. When No. 6 FHSU (30-3) and No. 9 ESU (27-4) meet at 7 p.m. at Gross Memorial Coliseum, not only will state supremacy be on the line, but also the winner will punch its ticket to the Elite Eight, beginning March 24 at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D.
ESU is no stranger to the stage, having been to the regional championship game 12 times, this being its fourth straight. The Hornets won the national championship in 2010, but haven't advanced out of regional play since.
"I'm really looking forward to it. It would be nice to get past the Sweet 16," ESU senior forward Merissa Quick said. "I think coach kind of talked about that, how when we are playing a team the fourth time we know exactly what they are going to be running. So it kind of comes down to more guarding their players rather than their action."
Quick was then referring to ESU's 65-54 overtime win over Pittsburg State University in Saturday's semifinal, the fourth win in four tries this season over the Gorillas. But that sentiment will hold true again today, when ESU and FHSU -- playing in its first NCAA regional championship game -- will meet for the fourth time this season.
The Tigers swept the Hornets in the regular season, their first win coming on Jan. 28 in Emporia, a 65-55 stunner over then No. 2 ESU that snapped its 23-game home-court win streak. The second win came in Hays on Feb. 7, a 72-62 victory where FHSU dominated most of the game.
As impressive as the Tigers were in both those victories, the third matchup was just the opposite. The teams met last Sunday in the championship game of the MIAA Tournament in Kansas City, Mo., ESU holding on for a 49-46 grinder of a win to claim its third consecutive tourney title.
"We have no secrets from each other. We are like an old married couple. So I expect a tough game," Hobson said of Round 4 with Emporia State. "I've thought for a while it might come down to this. And what more can you ask for? We get to play one game on our home floor to move on and need to just take advantage of it."
Having the game played at GMC will certainly be advantageous for FHSU, which is undefeated at home this season. It will also give the Tigers a second senior day, with Kate Lehman, Keriann Shaw, Christine Russell and Jenna Ulrich all getting one last chance to play in front of the home crowd.
An all-MIAA final was expected by most in this region. FHSU, ESU and PSU entered as the top three seeds, respectively, only Wayne State also being ranked in the top 25 out of the original eight teams in the Central Region.
While FHSU ran away from both its opponents in the second half of its first two regional games, ESU had to scrap and claw its way past Pitt on Saturday, needing overtime. Even though ESU may be the higher ranked team -- and the better team if the four wins over Pitt means anything -- Lehman, FHSU's star center, has always liked the matchup better. ESU's Quick is more of a pure five player than what PSU has inside, meaning Lehman won't have to venture away from the lane on defense.
However, Lehman also knows how good the rest of the Hornet players are and knows better than anyone what FHSU is up against in tonight's regional title game.
"It happens to be Emporia and not Pitt, and that's a good thing, because it's time for another matchup with them. I expect a really good game. I love that it's on the home court," Lehman said. "I've enjoyed it, because this is just bonus time. This is like whipped cream on the sundae. It's just for fun."