A monster run had the Fort Hays State men threatening to break away and cruise against Missouri Western after the Tigers opened up a 19-point lead midway through the first half on Thursday at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
But Lavon Hightower made sure it wouldn't be quite that easy for the Tigers.
The Griffon senior forward scored a game-high 29 points to help Western charge back to cut FHSU's lead down to three in the closing minutes.
But the Tigers countered with just enough timely shots and defensive stops to pull out an 84-74 victory, moving into a tie for second place in the MIAA standings.
After the Griffons crept within three with 2:32 left, FHSU finished the game on a 11-4 run to improve to 13-5 overall and 7-2 in the MIAA.
"It's a grind," FHSU senior forward Brady Werth said. "Everybody in the MIAA is pretty equal. It's just a fight throughout the whole game. Whoever plays hard and keeps their composure at the end will usually get the W."
FHSU senior guard Kyler Kinnamon hit arguably the biggest shot of the game, draining a 3-pointer off an assist from Werth to push the Tigers lead to six with two minutes left. Marcus Cooper later restored a six-point lead with a bucket in the post with 43 seconds left and Fort Hays put the Griffons away with free throws.
"Happy with our guys that after they made it close we responded and pushed away there at the end and got the victory," FHSU coach Mark Johnson said.
FHSU took a 13-point lead into halftime before Hightower erupted for 20 points in the second half to ignite Western. He finished 9 of 14 from the field and 6 of 9 from 3-point range.
"Second half we just couldn't get enough stops," Johnson said. "We let them shoot it too well and then obviously (Hightower) got going. He's a really good player. Most levels — any level, really — there's not a whole lot of guys that can score from all three levels. He shoots threes, he drives it and he has a mid-range game in the post."
Fortunately for the Tigers, they opened up some breathing room with a 3-point barrage in the first half. After Western scored the first five points, Fort Hays exploded with a 19-0 run and extended it to 26-2 to build a 26-7 lead with 8:58 left in the first half. The Tigers hit five 3-pointers during the first 11 minutes to separate.
"Everybody shot it with confidence and that's what we need throughout the rest of the season," Werth said.
Werth led the Tigers with 21 points on 7 of 10 shooting, going 4 of 4 from behind the arc. He was joined in double figures by Cooper (15), Aaron Nicholson (13) and Kinnamon (10).
Fort Hays went 27 of 57 from the field, 21 of 26 from the foul line and 9 of 21 from 3-point range.
"It's really nice to have Brady, Jared, guys that can step out on the floor, so you don't have to get Brady the ball every time in the post, because that becomes difficult," Johnson said. "We had a big stretch and both halves we kind of hit some threes to get us going."
Western (8-11, 2-6 MIAA) went 24 of 58 from the field, 17 of 26 from the foul line and 9 of 25 from three. Tyrell Carroll backed Hightower with 20 points for the Griffons.
FHSU remained unbeaten on its home floor this season at 11-0. Fort Hays will get their biggest test at Gross this weekend, playing host to unbeaten and No. 2-ranked Northwest Missouri at 4 p.m. Saturday.
"It's a great opportunity for us," Johnson said. "We're on our home floor ... We feel like we should have a chance to win that game on Saturday. It's at Gross Coliseum. We just need to go out there and play really hard, really physical and play with a lot of confidence."