Aiming for arguably their best win of the season, the Fort Hays State men didn’t have the luxury of catching No. 25 Missouri Southern on an off night.
Instead, the Tigers had to absorb the No. 25-ranked Lions’ best shot, which made Thursday night’s performance all the more encouraging for Fort Hays State.
In a game that featured 15 ties and 17 lead changes, Trey O’Neil's transition layup with 20 seconds left put the Tigers in front for good as Fort Hays pulled out an 89-84 thriller at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
“We played a really good team that played really good — it’s not like we just beat a really good team who was off their game,” FHSU coach Mark Johnson said. “They were really, really good.”
Lions' senior 6-foot-9 forward Cam Martin, who finished with a game-high 29 points, put Southern (22-6, 13-5 MIAA) up by a point on two free throws 1:24 to go. Both teams came up empty on its next possessions before O’Neil pushed the ball and found an opening to the bucket.
“Marcus (Cooper) got the rebound and he threw it out to me,” O’Neil said. “I got the ball, I’m a senior, I’m going to go take that shot.”
Johnson said he considered calling timeout after the Tigers secured the rebound but held off when O’Neil led the fastbreak.
“I almost cost us with Trey on the fastbreak,” Johnson said. “You know how fast I was wanting to call a timeout and I couldn’t decide — does he have the angle, does he not have the angle? Timeout or no timeout?
“Didn’t call the timeout and he just finished an off-balanced shot. Great finish. That was a huge play for us.”
Brady Werth recorded 19 points and nine rebounds for the Tigers while Cooper added 18 points and seven rebounds. Jared Vitztum contributed 11 points and Kyler Kinnamon finished with 10 points, seven assists and four steals.
“It was a well-rounded performance,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t just one guy. We needed everybody and everybody had their moments during the game and stretches where they came up big for us.”
Martin went 9 of 14 from the field and 11 of 13 from the foul line and was joined in double figures by Braelon Walker (17) and Kinzer Lambert (16).
The Tigers were briefly in danger of letting the Lions pull away in the first half, with Southern building a 12-point lead with 5:13 left before halftime.
But a layup by Cooper and a 3-pointer from Wright trimmed the deficit to seven and FHSU went into halftime down 41-37 after Wright’s putback at the buzzer.
“That was maybe the most important stretch of the game — that we were able to close that gap at halftime and get it to four,” Johnson said. “Because if they’re up 12, 14 (at halftime) — I don’t know if we can come back from that.
The Tigers shot 56.3 percent from the field while the Lions finished at a 47.5 percent clip.
Fort Hays will look to carry over the momentum into Saturday’s regular-season finale against Pittsburg State at 4 p.m. in Gross Coliseum.
“It’s huge,” O’Neil said of the win. “We’re good enough to play with anybody in this league and tonight showed that. We just got to take that into Saturday and then into next week (for the MIAA Tournament) as well.”