As soon as his team was announced as the top seed in the NCAA Division II Central Regional Tournament, Fort Hays State women's basketball coach Tony Hobson knew a top-notch atmosphere for the regional would be guaranteed.
“Let’s just say I’m not concerned about playing in front of an empty house, because I know we’ll have a great crowd,” Hobson said. “That’s the least of my worries. I know we’ve got that taken care of."
Fort Hays, which has ranked second in the nation in Division II women's basketball attendance for four years straight, will look to amass strong turnouts this week when the Tigers host the regional for the second time in program history.
“Our kids are excited," Hobson said. "They’ve heard all the stories (from when Fort Hays hosted regionals in 2015). Some of them were here, they were high school kids at the time and came to one of those weekend games when we hosted in '15. They’ve witnessed it, but not when they’re out on the floor.
“It’s just going to be a great experience for them. I hope they don’t get overwhelmed by the moment, which can happen. But it might be the other way, our kids might play way better in front of the crowd.”
Fresh off an MIAA Tournament championship, Fort Hays State (30-1) will open the regional against MIAA foe Pittsburg State (21-8) at 5 p.m. on Friday in Gross Memorial Coliseum.
"(Tuesday) during practice I was just looking up and just imagining (Gross Coliseum) full of people,” FHSU junior guard Lanie Page said. “… I’m really excited for that environment.”
The Tigers used the MIAA Tournament as an opportunity to convince the regional committee they were deserving of the No. 1 seed. Fort Hays had been slotted second behind Southwestern Oklahoma State in the last two editions of the regional rankings, but a 63-56 win over Central Missouri in the conference tournament final was enough to vault the Tigers to the top spot and give them hosting rights.
The team was on the way back from Kansas City on Sunday night when Fort Hays was announced as the regional host.
“We had no words other than just to scream,” FHSU senior forward and MIAA Player of the Year Tatyana Legette said. “We were really happy about it. That bus ride was definitely one of the best bus rides we’ve had.”
“The adrenaline was still high from the championship game,” Page said. “We just felt like everything was going right, so I just kind of felt like we knew we were going to host, but we were still nervous about it.”
The Tigers, who will be making their fifth NCAA Tournament appearance and fourth in the last five years, will look to carry over the momentum from a strong showing in the MIAA Tournament.
“Our kids step up at the big times, they kind of have all year against the good teams,” Hobson said. “I thought they showed that again over the weekend.”
“I think we’re playing about as well as you can this time of year,” he added. “You’re going to be battling some injuries this time of year and we’re doing that. You just try to cover those up, and luckily we have some depth that can help with that and you just move on.”
The Tigers, who are 16-0 at home this season, will be facing the Gorillas for the second time in two weeks after closing the regular season with a 67-62 win over Pitt State on the Tigers' senior day. FHSU rolled to a 78-53 win at Pitt State on Feb. 7 in the first matchup with the Gorillas.
“I honestly don’t think we played well the second time (against Pitt State),” Legette said. “I think that defensively we could have done a lot better. We didn’t really communicate as well as we should have."
“It’s a challenge,” Hobson said playing of Pitt for the third time in a little over a month. “You’re familiar with each other. You know what worked and what didn’t work the other two times. There will be some minor adjustments. … It’s a challenge, but everybody says, ‘Boy, you don’t want to play that team a third time.’ I just don’t buy that at all. I’d way rather play a team that we’ve beaten twice than somebody that’s beat us twice.
“Having it at home will obviously be an advantage, but Pitt’s a salty team. They’re young, enthusiastic, they’ve got a lot of quickness, so we’ll have to be on our toes.”
Maya Williams leads a balanced attack for Pitt State with 11.7 points per game while Shelby Lopez and Athena Alvarado are averaging 11.1 and 10.9 points.
The tournament, which features five MIAA teams, will begin at noon on Friday when No. 3-seed Central Missouri (24-6) faces No. 6 seed Lindenwood (21-7). No. 2 Southwestern Oklahoma State (30-1) will face No. 7-seeded Emporia State (22-8) at 2:30 p.m. The 7:30 p.m. game features No. 4 seed Minnesota Duluth (23-6) vs. MSU-Moorhead (26-6).
The semifinals will be Saturday night with the championship game on Monday night.
The winner of the Central Regional Tournament will advance to Columbus, Ohio for the Elite Eight March 26, 27 and 29.