A sense of senior-season urgency coupled with an attack-mode mentality has Fort Hays State's Marcus Cooper playing his best stretch of basketball as a Tiger.
Cooper has scored in double figures in nine straight games and is averaging 19.2 points over the last four contests heading into a matchup with Missouri Western at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Gross Memorial Coliseum.
“I realize I only got six, seven weeks left of basketball,” Cooper said. “I’m a senior so I have to leave everything out there on the court, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do every day.”
The Los Angeles product, who averages 14.8 points a game, said he’s made a concentrated effort to drive to the basket and not settle for as many perimeter shots.
“I usually start off with a jump shot, and if it doesn’t go in, I’m going to attack and get to the basket,” Cooper said. “It’s been helping me and helping my team, too. I think I do better when I attack and get in attack mode rather than just sitting around the 3-point line shooting the ball.”
Cooper’s driving ability was on display in Saturday’s 80-73 loss at Washburn. He scored 19 of his 21 points in the second half, aided by an 8-of-9 showing at the foul line.
“I feel like he’s playing to his strengths, not just settling at times like he has in the past,” FHSU coach Mark Johnson said. “He’s trying to get downhill, get to the basket. He’s 6-4, pretty long, pretty athletic guy. … He’s doing a better job of not being just a 3-point shooter, getting to the rim, getting fouled.
“We don’t have a lot of guys who can get to the line. I think him and Brady (Werth) are two guys that can hopefully get to the rim, put some pressure on the officials and get to the foul line.”
Cooper is in his second year with the Tigers after averaging 8.6 points as a junior. His increased offensive production has given Fort Hays another go-to guy along with Werth, who’s putting up a team-high 15.6 points per game.
In conference play, Cooper and Werth's offensive output has been virtually identical, with Cooper putting up 16 points a game and Werth 16.1.
“We always talk about we need another guy; it can’t just be Brady,” Johnson said. “Marcus and Brady, statistically, are very similar in conference play, average about the same points. When we continue to get that kind of production out of them, I think what’s really elevated our game is those two being where they’re at, and then you go to Emporia and Aaron Nicholson or Jared Vitztum have a big night. Now you’re talking about a third guy, and any time you can get a third guy involved with your offense, usually you have a pretty good offensive night.”
“Everybody wants to key on Brady and double team him, but when the rest of the team makes shots and plays good defense, it helps him because it takes a lot of pressure off him," Cooper added. Everybody’s been stepping up."
FHSU (12-5, 6-2 MIAA) went 1-1 on the road last week, beating Emporia State 82-71 before dropping the hard-fought decision to Washburn after the Ichabods closed the game on a 20-6 run.
“Hopefully we gain some confidence,” Johnson said. “We went on the road against a good Washburn team and really had a great opportunity to win the game. I think the disappointing thing you walk away with is in the last five minutes we didn’t do what you needed to do. We turned it over four times and didn’t get any defensive stops. … But overall, you take the 40 minutes of the Emporia game and the first 35 minutes against Washburn, I think we played well."
With a matchup against No. 2-ranked and unbeaten Northwest Missouri looming on Saturday, Johnson wants his team to keep its focus on Missouri Western (8-10, 2-5 MIAA). Most of the Griffons' troubles have been at home, going just 1-6 at MWSU Fieldhouse while posting a 4-2 record on the road.
“Our most important game has got to be that Missouri Western game. We can not look past that game,” Johnson said. “They’re a much improved team. The scary thing about them is they’re a much better road team than a home team."
The Griffons, in their first year under head coach Sundance Wicks, are led by 6-6 forward Lavon Hightower's 18.3 points per game.
“They put their head down and drive it," Johnson said. "I’m really concerned about the foul line and who’s going to be able to guard Hightower. Are they going to get to 30, 40 free throws like we had that stretch with Emporia and Bethel? Playing without fouling will be big on Thursday.”
No. 8-ranked Tiger women look to stay sharp
The Fort Hays State women's team had no trouble responding from its first bit of adversity, bouncing back from last Wednesday's 54-51 loss at Emporia State with a solid showing in a 58-51 win over Washburn on Saturday.
“You never really want to see a team get so down on themselves after a loss that they’re just going to let it carry over into the next game,” FHSU coach Tony Hobson said. “We try to not get real, real excited about a big win; we try to forget about it after 24 hours and move on to the next game. We try to use that same strategy when we have a tough loss. Try to learn from it a little bit, but eventually you have to shed that and move on, and I think our kids did a great job of doing that last week.”
FHSU (16-1, 7-1 MIAA), which slipped five spots to No. 8 in the NCAA Division II Women's Basketball Coaches Association Poll, will face Missouri Western (9-7, 4-3 MIAA) at 5:30 p.m. Thursday before taking on Northwest Missouri (6-10, 2-5 MIAA) on Saturday.
“It’s a legitimate concern when you come off of Emporia and Washburn, tough games on the road, and then you play a couple games that on paper you should win,” Hobson said. “But, boy, Missouri Western’s a scary team. They’re physical, they play hard, athletic.
“Northwest won both of their games on the Oklahoma swing, so you know they can go into a place and play well. You just have to really try and battle and not have that natural letdown because you’re not playing a team that you perceive as being really dangerous. Any team in our conference is real dangerous.”
The Griffons are coming off a pair of wins over Emporia State (68-66) and Northwest Missouri (66-43). Katrina Roenfeldt leads Western with a 15.8 points per game, hitting 46 of 126 3-point attempts on the season.
“They’re really playing better," Hobson said of the Griffons. "I think they kind of got their rotation down now. They’ve got all their kids back and healthy as they’ve been for a couple years now. They’re deeper than they have been. … They’re playing very well defensively and you really have to execute against them to get good shots. They’ll be a test for us.”