An undefeated season at Gross Memorial Coliseum was one of the preseason goals for the No. 3 Fort Hays State University women’s basketball team. With Thursday’s 68-47 win over visiting Northeastern State, the Tigers remained perfect on their home court through 10 games.
“That’s one thing we really like to protect, our home court,” junior Jill Faxon said. “We go all out, especially in front of a crowd like this, it’s hard not to show how proud we are of this court, this team and this community.”
The RiverHawks and their patient offense that features a number of flare and back screens provided a look much different than what the Tigers have seen to this point this season.
“Their motion is tough to guard,” senior Paige Lunsford said. “It’s different than anything else we’ll see all year. They’re always moving.”
Hot shooting bought the Tigers time as they adapted and adjusted to the NSU offense in front of the Gross Memorial Coliseum crowd.
Northeastern State was first on the scoreboard and held a narrow lead in the opening moments before a series of Tiger makes took control of the game. Faxon tied the game at seven with the team’s first 3-pointer. The junior hit again with 5:31 left in the first quarter to put FHSU up 10-9. The Tigers led the rest of the way.
Chelsea Mason and Paige Lunsford combined for three makes from deep in the final two minutes as the home team expanded its lead to 22-13 after the first quarter. Five of FHSU’s eight field goals in the opening quarter came from deep.
The trend continued in the second quarter. NSU was back within four after 3-pointers from Alexis Hill and Caley Shaffstall, but Mason and Lunsford got the FHSU lead back to 10 with triples of their own.
Mason’s fourth 3-pointer of the first half barely beat the buzzer and put FHSU up 43-29 after two quarters.
“When three-point shots are falling, it kinda lets us relax a little bit then get into a groove on defense, which was a little rough at the beginning,” Faxon said. “The 3-pointers helped, but we needed to start stronger on defense.”
The Tigers went to the locker room shooting 8 for 18 from beyond the arc with Mason, Faxon and Mason each making multiple.
“When the threes are falling, we’re a tough team to guard because we have a lot of girls that can shoot them,” Lunsford said. “That’s the thing, it’s not like one person was making them all. It was kinda all over the place.”
The Tigers cooled from deep in the second half, making just 3-of-13 from deep in the final two quarters, but the defense prevented the RiverHawks from ever narrowing the gap. Northeastern State frequently positions one of their bigger guards in the post.
While Taylor Chandler scored just three points, she was instrumental in holding Kate Bellamy, one of the RiverHawks’ leading scorers, to 1-of-2 from the field. Chandler’s defensive showing was part of a larger effort that pleased head coach Tony Hobson outside of a few mental mistakes.
“I thought we did an excellent job guarding their inside game,” Hobson said. “They didn’t really get anything on us like they have been on other people.”
FHSU extended the lead to 20 behind an impressive close to the third quarter from Niki Kacperska. The junior from Poland followed a 3-pointer with a pull-up jumper that put the Tigers ahead 54-33 with just over three minutes left in the third quarter. Following her second make, Kacperska picked off the inbounds pass. Although Elle Stein missed the ensuing layup, Lunsford collected the offensive rebound and kicked to an open Beth Bohuslavsky, who buried a 3-pointer right in front of the Tiger bench, putting FHSU up by 24 points.
Lunsford’s offensive rebound was just one of her 13 boards on the night. Seven of those rebounds came on the offensive end. The Tigers finished with 18 offensive rebounds and a 25-2 advantage in second-chance points.
“She has no business getting seven offensive rebounds except she outworks everybody, and that’s why she’s really valuable to us,” Hobson said.
Lunsford’s work ethic extends into practice, according to teammates.
“She just has such a good drive,” Faxon said. “She sees the ball, she’s gonna get it. No one is going to get in her way. That’s what she does. Even in practice, she’ll go after a ball, you’ll think it’s dead, but Paige will get it. Same with Elle (Stein), they both really fight for those rebounds.”
Lunsford finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds four assists and a steal with zero turnovers. Her 2-of-6 showing at the free throw line seemed to be her only source of struggle on the night.
While Lunsford and rest of the other upperclassmen led the Tigers, a pair of true freshman highlighted the program’s future in the fourth quarter.
Chandler came up with one of her game-high four steals early in the fourth quarter and pushed the ball up the court to freshman Carly Heim on the right flank. Heim dropped the ball off to classmate Tatyana Legette, who finished a layup and drew the foul. Her free throw put FHSU up 63-40 with 6:52 in the game. The Tigers lead by at least 20 points the rest of the way and moved to 15-1 and 9-1 in the MIAA.
Faxon led the Tigers with 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting. Mason finished a rebound shy of joining Lunsford with a double-double, finishing with 12 points and nine rebounds.
Hill led NSU with 12 points. The RiverHawks were held to 39 percent shooting by one of the MIAA’s top defenses.
The Tigers will put their perfect home record on the line again on Saturday when they host Central Oklahoma (12-4, 6-4).