By AUSTIN COLBERT
When the Fort Hays State University men's basketball team took the court Monday night against visiting Northwestern Oklahoma State University, the Tigers had two native Croatians in their starting five.
First came third-year Tiger Tomislav Gabric, a Palm Beach State (Fla.) Community College transfer from Dubrovnik, Croatia. Next came first-year Tiger Dom Samac, a Division I Denver University transfer originally from Zagreb, Croatia.
And the fact the two Croatians now call Hays home is not by chance.
"Tom led to Dom. I don't know how much of a coincidence that was. We recruited two Croatians when Tom came here and we got Tom, we did not get the other one," FHSU coach Mark Johnson said.
"I think Tom has really enjoyed his experience here. He likes Hays. He's enjoyed the community, the university and the basketball part of it, and I think that led to Dom wanting to be a part of it and bringing him along, too."
Samac, a junior, has been an instant impact player for the Tigers this season, no performance better than in Monday's 94-50 beat down of NWOSU (2-6) at Gross Memorial Coliseum. He recorded his second double-double in nine games as a Tiger -- all starts -- finishing with a career-high 19 points and 13 rebounds in a key regional win for FHSU (6-3) in non-conference action.
Samac had his double-double by halftime (10 points, 10 rebounds) as the Tigers held a 48-17 lead after 20 minutes in a game that was never close. FHSU shot 62.5 percent in the first half and 64.7 percent for the game, while holding the Rangers to just 22.2 percent in the first half. FHSU made 11 of 17 3-point attempts, senior Royce Williams going 5 for 5, and the 6-foot-9, 215-pound Samac made easy work of the Rangers' post players.
"It was a great team effort and everybody played really good. All five guys and even the guys that came off the bench played amazing," said Samac, who believed the first half against NWOSU was the best half of basketball the Tigers had played this season.
"Coach did expect for me to have a good season, so I had to step in and play good defensively and offense would come by itself. But with help from my teammates, they really accepted me for who I was and what my role was. So they really helped me to implement myself on the team and help the team as best as I can."
Samac's road to Hays began in high school, where he attended North Broward Prep in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a new implant fresh from Croatia. At some point during his time there he bumped into Gabric, who attended American Heritage High School, a prestigious Florida prep school. Their teams met once on the court, although Samac was injured and didn't actually play that game.
Gabric, who is now a 6-foot-6, 185-pound senior guard for the Tigers, would eventually spend two seasons at Palm Beach State before transferring to Hays. He redshirted in 2012-13 and became a major part of the team last season, starting all 30 games and finishing fifth on the team in scoring.
Samac wound up at Denver University, where he played little as a freshman and averaged only 3.5 points per game in 17 appearances as a sophomore.
"He didn't have much playing time in Denver, so I told him he was going to be a good fit here and that's what he's been doing right now. That's really good for us," Gabric said. "I always get him motivated. In the beginning he didn't start that well, but then I told him some things, to not be thinking too much. And now he's getting comfortable and comfortable. He'll be good."
Gabric and Samac didn't know each other very well before this season, but according to Samac there are less than 20 Croatian-born college basketball players in the U.S., making it easy for them to at least know of each other. And not so coincidentally, both players are managed by the same recruiter, making Samac's decision to join Gabric at FHSU a no-brainer after he decided to transfer from DU.
"Didn't know about Dom until we had Tom. And really, the guy who helped us recruit Tom basically just (said) Dom was coming here. He was leaving his Division I school. He didn't go visit anywhere else," Johnson said. "We knew he was a talented guy. There are not a whole lot of 6-9 guys ... that can shoot from the outside, that can drive the basketball and be as mobile as him. He's a difficult matchup."
Samac has reached double figures in scoring seven of his nine games for the Tigers this season, Monday's 19 topping the 14 he scored against Newman University on Nov. 25, an 82-75 win. Williams, a Division I Weber State University transfer in his first season with the Tigers, also had a career high on Monday with 17 points.
Both Gabric and Johnson seemed impressed by Samac's quick development early this season, but neither is surprised, either. The more comfortable he gets, the more likely games like Monday could continue for the Tigers' new star big man.
"He's getting a little more comfortable and more importantly he's staying out of foul trouble so he can stay out there and do some things," Johnson said. "So we are very happy to have him. Not only are they good basketball players and good people, but what I like is they are really excited and happy to be in Hays, Kansas, and at Fort Hays State."
The Tigers now are off until Dec. 16, when they host NAIA Bethany College at 7:30 p.m. for one final non-conference game. FHSU returns to MIAA play Dec. 20 with a game at Northwest Missouri State University.