KEARNEY, Neb. — Fort Hays State's window to mount a comeback was closing with every errant shot that clanked away on Saturday at Nebraska-Kearney.
As the No. 6-ranked Tigers were mired in a severe shooting funk that lasted two and a half quarters, Nebraska-Kearney had opened up a 20-point lead midway through the third quarter.
“They had us in the grave and they were starting to put some dirt on top of us,” FHSU coach Tony Hobson said.
Then Kacey Kennett led the resurrection.
With the Tigers' shooting percentage hovering in the 20s late in the third quarter, Kennett helped ignite a spark for Fort Hays, hitting three 3-pointers in the last 3:04 of the third to slice FHSU's deficit down to eight heading to the fourth.
Kennett hit her fourth trey early in the fourth quarter to continue what ended up being a 25-4 run that helped the Tigers take the lead with 6:05 left.
Fort Hays then fought tooth and nail with the Lopers down the stretch, ultimately pulling out a 74-64 overtime win at UNK's Health and Sports Center, marking the Tigers' largest comeback win in Hobson's 11 years as FHSU coach.
Hobson credited Kennett, who scored 18 of her 20 points after halftime, with fueling the Tigers' rally.
“Kacey hit a couple 3s and really, really saved us," Hobson said. "… If you don’t have somebody make those at that time, it would have been just too late and we wouldn’t have had a chance.”
Kennett hit her first 3-pointer with 3:04 left in the third to bring the Tigers within 13. She made another with 1:08 left in the frame and drained her third trey with 23 seconds left in the quarter to cut the Tigers' deficit to 49-41.
"Once you get a couple shots to fall, from anybody, you get a little more comfortable,” Kennett said. “You get the energy level up. You start making plays on the offensive and defensive end and it changes the game a little bit.
“I was just trying to get something started, but I was also feeling good in warmups and I didn’t feel like in the first half I got many open looks, but the second half I felt like I did, so I was just trying to make the most of that opportunity and get rolling a bit.”
FHSU (19-1, 10-1 MIAA) opened the fourth quarter on a 9-0 run, capped by a layup from Carly Heim. After UNK regained the lead, Tatyana Legette answered with a 3-pointer to put the Tigers back in front.
UNK was in position to win the game in regulation, up three with a minute left. But Legette brought the Tigers within one on a layup with 57 seconds left, and after an FHSU stop, Kennett was fouled with 16 seconds left and hit one of two free throws to tie it up. The Lopers then missed an open 3 to keep the game knotted at 59 and send it to overtime.
Legette took over in OT, scoring 11 points of her career-high 25 points in the extra session. The Lopers were within two with a minute left, but the Tigers put UNK away with defensive stops and free throws.
“Wins like that, I don’t know that they build character, but they sure expose it,” Hobson said. “You find out if you have it or not. Either you quit and get beat by 25 or 30 or you make a run at them. Even if we don’t win that game, the way we came back, I would’ve felt like it was a good learning situation for us. But it’s a lot better to get the win.”
However, the Tigers' excitement was a bit subdued following the victory.
FHSU senior point guard Carly Heim left the game with 4:18 left in overtime with a knee injury and did not return.
“I’m just really worried right now (that the win) came at a high cost, because I’m not sure about Carly’s injury,” Hobson said. “She got it going for an offensive board. She did something to her knee but we’re not sure yet.”
Hobson credited sophomore guard Whitney Clampitt for giving the Tigers' 13 big minutes off the bench and stepping in for Heim in overtime.
The Tigers trailed 33-20 at halftime after going just 8 of 39 from the field for 20.5 percent. FHSU finished 25 of 78 from the floor for 32 percent while Kearney (12-8, 5-6 MIAA) went 27 of 59 for 45.8 percent.
FHSU finished 9 of 31 from 3-point range after hitting just 1 of 13 attempts from distance in the first half.
“When we start playing with a little energy, it’s amazing how the ball will start to go in the basket," Hobson said. "The basketball Gods, if you’re not ready to play and you're not playing with enthusiasm, they’re not going to let the ball go in the basket for you. Second half everybody was making 3s.”
UNK was led by Brooke Carlson's 16 points while Adreon Bell added 12 and Maegan Holt 10.
FHSU junior Taylor Rolfs pulled down a career-high 10 rebounds and four assists to go along with five points.
The Tigers, who are now alone in first place in the MIAA after Washburn's loss to Linndenwood, will continue a three-game road swing against Pittsburg State on Thursday night in John Lance Arena.