Marcus Cooper stuffed the stat sheet in the final minute against Northeastern State on Thursday night, and the Fort Hays State men needed every point, steal and rebound the senior guard could provide.
Cooper was in the right spot at the right time constantly during a wild last minute, coming through big on both ends of the floor to help FHSU edge NSU 69-65 at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
The Los Angeles product finished with a game-high 22 points, scoring the Tigers’ last eight points and coming up with a huge steal and two defensive rebounds inside the last minute.
“I had to step up,” Cooper said. “I wanted it more than anybody; our team wants it more. At the end of the day, we got to fight. I threw out some more energy, fought to the end and we all got the win.”
With NSU leading by three, Cooper’s heroics started with a 3-pointer to tie the game at 64 with 52 seconds left. He then came up with a steal and proceeded to give the Tigers a two-point lead after beating the RiverHawks backdoor and throwing down a two-handed dunk with 27 seconds left.
“In the timeout, coach drew it up and I saw the way my defender was guarding me,” Cooper said. “He was in front of me so I knew for a fact that once Kyler (Kinnamon) came at me, I was going to cut backdoor and it was going to be set up perfectly.”
NSU was fouled with 18 seconds left but hit just one of two free throws to keep the Tigers in front. Cooper would make one of two foul shots with 16 seconds left before NSU’s Caleb Smith missed a good look from 3 with four ticks left. Cooper grabbed the rebound and then put the game out of reach with two free throws.
Cooper finished 8 of 12 from the field, grabbed nine rebounds and came up with five steals.
“Obviously Marcus Cooper was big time tonight, especially in the second half,” Tigers’ coach Mark Johnson said.
FHSU (10-4, 4-1 MIAA) trailed 29-27 at halftime and neither team could gain any separation in the second half. Back-to-back 3-pointers from Smith gave the RiverHawks (6-8, 0-5 MIAA) a 58-55 lead with 4:26 to go. The Tigers moved to within a point three times in the next three minutes but NSU answered each time. Gordon Hill’s dunk gave NSU a three-point advantage with 1:10 left before Cooper took over.
“Like I tell the guys all the time on our home floor: If you give enough effort, a lot of times just down the stretch in Gross Memorial Coliseum magical things can happen for your team,” Johnson said. “But you got to give the effort, and I thought we did down the stretch. We came up big.”
Devin Davis gave the Tigers 14 points off the bench while Brady Werth added 13. Smith paced NSU with 17 points with Tanner Mouse and Trent Cantrell added 16 and 14, respectively.
The Tigers finished 23 of 56 from the floor and 7 of 20 from the 3-point line.
“The first half we were abysmal running our offense; you talk about just standing and doing nothing,” Johnson said. “I thought we came out the second half and had a lot of movement in our offense and it was 100 times better.”
NSU was 23 of 40 from the field and 8 of 14 from behind the arc.
“It was hard (to defend the RiverHawks) because they kept moving and moving and moving,” Cooper said. “We had to play together and talk, and I think that’s what we did today.”
Johnson said the fact that the RiverHawks are still winless in MIAA play shows how tough the conference is.
“All in all, it was a great win,” Johnson said. “That was an 0-4 team and they are now 0-5. Name another league in the country that that team would be 0-5; there isn’t one.”
Fort Hays will be back at home to face Central Oklahoma at 4 p.m. on Saturday.