EMPORIA — Fort Hays State University men’s basketball coach Mark Johnson doesn’t have a real definitive answer for why his Tigers play so well here.
But, White Auditorium in recent seasons has become a home-away-from-home of sorts — no matter the Tiger team.
For whatever reason, FHSU seems to make itself comfortable three hours from Hays.
On Saturday, that reason was Aaron Nicholson.
The sophomore from Wichita had one of his best games — especially this season — as he scored all 10 of his points in the second half, fueling the Tigers’ 69-58 MIAA win against the Hornets.
“That was really big,” Nicholson said following the win, which came on the heels of a narrow loss Wednesday night at Washburn. “Since we didn’t get that win against Washburn, we wanted to at least get this one — especially on the road.”
It was the Tigers’ sixth straight victory over the Hornets at White Auditorium, and pushed FHSU to 7-3 overall and 3-1 in conference play, the final MIAA game before the holiday break.
“For whatever reason, we do play well here,” Johnson said. “Our guys played well defensively the whole first half.”
That didn’t change much in the second, save for a short lull that allowed Emporia State to climb back into the contest after FHSU — behind Hadley Gillum — had built a 12-point lead.
“You know they’re going to come back,” Johnson said. “We could have just went away.”
But Nicholson had other plans. The sophomore fueled an 18-4 run. That came after the hosts had rallied to take a 50-47 lead on a jumper by Brandon Hall.
Nicholson, though, hit a 3-pointer, followed by a layup to spur the run.
“They found me on the offensive end,” Nicholson said. “Just knocked down some shots tonight.”
Nicholson hit another layup that gave FHSU a 54-50 lead, then produced the dagger as time was winding down on the shot clock in the final 3 minutes. He drained one from long range to give FHSU an eight-point lead at the 2:29 mark. He was one of three in double figures, joining Gillum (21) and junior Brady Werth (14).
“Brady and Hadley had nice games, but Aaron Nicholson stepped up,” Johnson said. “That step-back 3 (to beat the shot clock) kind of closed things out.”
The win was particularly nice for Johnson after his team’s disappointing game in a loss at Washburn on Wednesday. The Tigers had a poor shooting night in Topeka, and he said the Tigers came out in practice ready to work the following day.
“We played poorly. Not one guy didn’t come out over the last two days and practice as hard as they can practice,” Johnson said.
FHSU hit 51 percent from the floor, just a few days after hitting only 30 percent of its shots in the loss. The Hornets got a big game from Garin Vandiver, who recorded 17 points. Brandon Hall, who averaged 16.8 points in the Hornets’ 5-4 start, added to his recent struggles with an 11-point night. He hit just 4 of 15 from the floor.
FHSU will take a break from conference play with a 4 p.m. Saturday game with Kansas Wesleyan University.