The Fort Hays State men’s basketball team walked away from Monday night's double-overtime thriller against Bethel with a mixture of feelings ranging from disappointment, relief and pride.
In one sense, the Tigers were discouraged by the overall showing, particularly at the foul line, with the Tigers going just 19 of 34 from the stripe.
On the other hand, Fort Hays showed moxie by hitting huge shot after huge shot at the end of the regulation and in both overtimes to survive with a 101-96 win at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
The Tigers (7-3) were on the brink of defeat on a few different occasions, using a Marcus Cooper layup with six seconds left to force overtime and rallying from a five-point deficit with 1:22 left in the first overtime before finally outlasting the NAIA Threshers in the second extra session.
“I’ve got mixed emotions about today,” Fort Hays coach Mark Johnson said. “Obviously I’m very disappointed (in the free throw shooting). Any time you shoot free throws that bad, a lot of times that shows you’re not ready to play. So I’m highly disappointed in myself and our players for not being ready to play.
“Then at the other end, we shouldn’t have won this game. We were dead twice — dead in regulation, dead in the first overtime. I think our guys deserve a lot of credit for finding a way to win the game.”
Fort Hays led 33-26 at halftime but the Threshers continued to hang around and grabbed their first lead of the second half with 10:08 left. They went up by four with 22 seconds left in regulation after four straight free throws, but Brady Werth kept the Tigers alive with a 3-pointer with 15 seconds remaining to bring FHSU within a point.
Bethel then hit one of two free throws before Kyler Kinnamon found Marcus Cooper for a layup to knot it up with six seconds left, and the Threshers missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
In the first overtime, Fort Hays fell behind by five three different times. FHSU's Trey O’Neil hit a 3-pointer to cut it to two with 1:02 left and Werth put the Tigers back in front on another 3 with 40 seconds left. Kinnamon made one of two free throws to put FHSU up two, but Bethel’s Jaylon Scott tied it up on a bucket with 16 seconds left.
In the second extra session, Werth hit a game-tying 3 with 2:33 left and Kinnamon put the Tigers in front for good with a layup with 2:33 left. Nicholson helped stretched the Tigers to lead to three on a layup with 1:27 left, and Fort Hays redeemed themselves at the line, putting the Threshers away with free throws.
“We’re very thankful to come out with that win,” said Nicholson, a junior guard. “I don’t think we should have had any business winning that game. We made some big-time shots at the end of the game.
“I don’t think we played very good defense at all, but we made some big shots, for sure.”
Werth led the Tigers with 23 points and was joined in double figures by the other four starters — Nicholson (19), Kinnamon (16), Cooper (14) and O’Neil (13).
“I’d like to win these games here at the end with toughness and stops and rebounds,” Johnson said. “I thought we won it just by making big shots. We made big threes.”
Fort Hays made nine more field goals than the Threshers, going 35 of 78 from the field while Bethel went 26 of 66. But the Threshers (7-6) thrived by hitting 36 of 48 free throws.
Though Nicholson and Kinnamon both turned in strong games, the guards struggled from the line, combining to go 7 of 18 from the stripe.
“I thought Aaron had a great game; it could have been a tremendous game,” Johnson said. “He played really, really well for us, but he was 1 of 8 from the foul line. That just can’t happen. Otherwise that would have been a tremendous, tremendous game.”
Kinnamon dished out nine assists and finished with just one turnover.
Scott led five Bethel players in double figures with 28 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.
“They have good players out there,” Johnson said of Bethel. “(Scott) was the best player on the floor by far. He’s a really good player. They’re really athletic. We did a good job of guarding them until the end, and then they just caught fire. We fouled way too much.”
The Tigers avoided their first loss to an NAIA team under Johnson, improving to 67-0 against NAIA foes during Johnson’s 18 years at FHSU.
“Right now, we’re a little frustrated with our performance,” Johnson said. “But you win the game, you’ve got to be happy with that. We made huge shots.”
FHSU will return from the holiday break on Dec. 30 to face McPherson College at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
“Obviously we got to play better, but our guys know that,” Johnson said. “Hopefully we learned a lesson tonight. … It’s nice to learn a lesson when you win instead of having to learn one when you lose.”