KANSAS CITY, MO. — The last major MIAA accomplishment on the checklist for the Fort Hays State women’s basketball program has been crossed off by the Tigers.
Leading from start to finish, Fort Hays claimed its first MIAA Tournament championship in program history with a 63-56 win over Central Missouri in Sunday’s final at Municipal Auditorium.
“We’ve got some grinders that are really competitive and they wanted it bad,” Fort Hays State coach Tony Hobson said. “For our team, it’s one of those things where nobody’s going to say, ‘Well, you’ve never won it.’
“It’s one of those boxes you check off. … I’m just happy for these kids to get the experience of cutting down the nets and celebrating. I just like to sit back and watch them (celebrate), because they’ve worked their butts off this year.”
Fort Hays State's day got even better a few hours later when the Tigers were announced as the top seed and host for next week's Central Regional Tournament. FHSU's performance in the conference tournament was enough to convince the regional committee to move the Tigers past Southwestern Oklahoma State after Fort Hays was tabbed No. 2 behind SWOSU in the last two edition of the region rankings.
The Tigers (30-1) will open the regional tournament against conference rival Pittsburg State (21-8) in the first round of the tournament at 5 p.m. on Friday at Gross Memorial Coliseum. Central Missouri, Lindenwood and Emporia State will also represent the MIAA in the regional.
Senior forward Tatyana Legette was named the MIAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player and was joined on the all-tournament team by Fort Hays juniors Taylor Rolfs and Lanie Page.
Rolfs led the Tigers with 17 points in the final while Legette posted 14 points and 12 rebounds and Page and Belle Barbieri each scored 10.
“It’s kind of a good feeling when after we won the game and they’re announcing the all-tournament team, and I’m saying we probably have the MVP of the tournament, but I don’t know who it might be,” Hobson said. “It could have been several people. Taylor was one of them, T (Legette) was one of them, maybe Lanie was one of them. We had so many people play really big.”
“It takes a little stress off all of us because there’s so many people you can rely on,” Rolfs added. “That’s really, really nice — offensively and defensively.”
Fort Hays, which was playing in the MIAA Tournament championship for the third time, stormed out of the gate to take an 18-5 lead. FHSU scored on their first eight possessions, going 8 of 8 from the field.
“It was just kind of like a jumpstart into the game,” Rolfs said. “It’s just like, ‘Keep the lead from now on.’ It was good that we had that lead right at the beginning. I felt like down low, we did a really good job of finishing at the beginning of the game.”
The Tigers pounded it inside from the start.
“I thought offensively, we just had a decided advantage (inside),” Hobson said. “Plus, their guards are excellent and they guard very well. ... Definitely, our first three looks, we were going to try to go inside and work from the inside and out. Tonight, it got us off to a good start.”
Rolfs scored 12 points in the first half to help the Tigers take a 32-24 lead at the break and she hit a 3-pointer early in the second half to push FHSU’s lead to 15.
Hobson said Rolfs has a knack for coming through in big games.
“I think she’s a stress seeker,” Hobson said. “The bigger the game and the tighter it is — I don’t know if she does it on purpose or what — but she doesn’t shy away from big games. She’s played in them a lot her whole life. She had a great tournament.”
Central Missouri (24-6) was within nine of the Tigers at the end of the third quarter before back-to-back buckets from Barbieri and Page stretched the advantage to 15 early in the fourth.
The Jennies got as close as six, but just 37 seconds remained by that point, and the Tigers sealed it with free throws.
Fort Hays finished 23 of 50 from the field while Central Missouri was 21 of 49.
“I definitely knew it was going to be physical; we’re fighting for the same thing, being tournament champions,” Legette said. “We were, I feel like, prepared for their guards to be physical and their posts. I feel like we were just as aggressive, if not more. We were ready.”
Paige Redmond led the Jennies with 16 points while Megan Skaggs added 14 and Morgan Fleming 10.
“To hold that team to 56 is really good,” Hobson said. “Offensively they’re really talented.”
The other Central Regional matchups are No. 2 seed Southwestern Oklahoma State (30-1) vs. No. 7 Emporia State (22-8), No. 3 Central Missouri (24-6) vs. No. 7 Lindenwood (21-7) and No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth (23-6) vs. No. 5-Minnesota-Moorhead (26-6). Times have yet to been announced.