Fresh off clinching an MIAA regular-season championship, the Fort Hays State women’s basketball team proved early against Missouri Southern there would be no letdown, even with the title already in the bag.

The No. 3-ranked Tigers scored the first nine points of the game and remained in control throughout, picking up a 79-59 win on Thursday at Gross Memorial Coliseum to move to 26-1 overall and 17-1 in the MIAA.

“I was really happy with our effort, because these games are really difficult — when you clinched the title last week, it’s just natural to have a little bit of a letdown,” FHSU coach Tony Hobson said. “I’m glad we were at home today and not on the road. It’s just a little easier to stay up and play hard at home.”

The Tigers were dialed in from the opening tip, which Tatyana Legette batted to Lanie Page for a transition layup two seconds into the game. 

The 9-0 run also featured a four-point play from Kacey Kennett, and the Tigers held the Lions without a field goal until the 4:37 mark of the first frame. Fort Hays built a 38-20 lead by halftime and never let the Lions closer than 15 points in the second half. 

“I think we really started out the game locked in on defense,” Hobson said. “They didn’t have a basket until after the first media timeout. Any time you can do that at home, you should get off to a good start, get a little bit of a lead.

“Any time they started cutting into our lead in the second half, either T (Legette) or Belle (Barbieri) got something inside; they either scored or got fouled most of the time. We really had an advantage on the inside and those were high-percentage shots.”

The Tigers, who later received the MIAA championship trophy at halftime of the men’s game, never allowed the Lions to find their offensive rhythm, holding Southern (13-15, 5-13 MIAA) to 34.4 percent from the field.

“They’ve got a few guards that drive the lane, so help is big,” Barbieri said. “I think our team, overall, did a good job of helping inside and grabbing all the boards. It was a good team effort.”

Barbieri, a junior forward, led the Tigers with a game-high 18 points, going 7 of 9 from the field while also pulling down 11 rebounds.

Hobson said a key area of improvement for Barbieri has been her ability to finish with contact in the post.

“It’s such an adjustment for a post player coming out of high school because in high school they allow hardly any contact, so most players are (finesse players), so I think it takes them a little bit to learn how to play with some contact in college,” Hobson said. “I think she’s just gotten better and better at that and is able to finish shots where there’s a little contact and not enough for a foul, but still enough to throw a shot off if you don’t adjust.”

“Last year definitely taught me to go up strong, because at the very least, I get to the foul line,” Barbieri said. “I think it just kind of comes with experience and being confident.”

Kennett finished with 17 points while Legette put up 14 points and eight rebounds with four assists. Whitney Randall added 10 off the bench.

The Tigers won the rebounding battle, 44-35.

“Belle really pulled down some tough rebounds,” Hobson said. “She’s getting where she can bring them down when she’s in a crowd. If you get her and T to bring them down out of a crowd, you’re going to get a lot of rebounds.”

Fort Hays was tabbed No. 1 in last week’s region rankings, but, despite posting convincing road wins over Central Oklahoma and Northeastern State last week, the Tigers dropped to No. 2 behind Southwestern Oklahoma State. Like Fort Hays, SWOSU’s only loss on the season came against Emporia State.

“That’s the beauty of Division II — half the things that happen in the region rankings make no sense and sometimes you can’t figure them out,” Hobson said. “I’ve found that every time I start worrying about something like that, then I don’t have my team ready to play and we end up losing. It’s not in our control. What is in our control is the next ball game on Saturday and winning that.

“But I was surprised. I don’t see how you drop in the rankings when you go on the road and win two games by plus-twenty.”

The Tigers will close out the regular season against Pittsburg State (21-6, 13-5 MIAA) at 2 p.m for senior day Saturday in Gross Memorial Coliseum. The Tigers earned a 78-53 rout of Pitt State three weeks ago in Pittsburg.

“I think we’ll get a good effort from them,” Hobson said of the Gorillas. “You go onto somebody’s home floor when they’re (17-4) at that time and beat them the way that we did, I think they’ll be really ready to play against us and we’ll have to have a good effort on Saturday to get them.”

“I think it mainly starts on the defensive end,” Barbieri said. “If we come out like we did tonight — sharp on the switches and rebounding and helping each other out — I think we’ll be OK.”