A banner regular season gave the Fort Hays State women’s basketball team the opportunity to continue utilizing one of the best home-court advantages in NCAA Division II while aiming for the Elite Eight.
Inspired by the turnouts, the Tigers are doing their best to make sure they capitalize.
In front of a crowd of 3,725, Fort Hays advanced to the Division II regional final for the second time in program history, picking up a 71-60 win over Minnesota State University Moorhead on Saturday night at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
“There’s no place we’d rather be playing right now. It’s just awesome to look up and see so many people and just know that they’re all here for us and supporting us,” redshirt sophomore guard Madison Mittie said.
The win marked Fort Hays State’s 25th consecutive win in the Coliseum, tying a team record. If the No. 3-ranked Tigers (32-1) can continue the streak in Monday’s 7 p.m. regional final against Southwestern Oklahoma State, they will advance to the Elite Eight in Columbus, Ohio.
“The community here, all they want to do is just cheer you on, support you, tell you, ‘Oh, you’re just a great player,’ ” FHSU senior forward Tatyana Legette said. “They keep tabs on you and they just want the best for you. Playing here, it’s amazing.”
MSU Moorhead made the Tigers work for another game in Gross, with the Dragons cutting a 14-point second-half deficit down to three on two occasions early in the fourth.
A 6-0 run fueled by buckets from Taylor Rolfs, Kacey Kennett and Belle Barbieri helped the Tigers extend the lead to nine with with 4:36 left and the Dragons never got closer than seven the rest of the way.
“They sure didn’t quit,” FHSU coach Tony Hobson said of the Dragons. “I just thought our team played a notch better than we did (in Friday’s 74-65 win over Pittsburg State) and executed better, which probably has a little bit to say about facing a man to man that we’re used to more than a zone that kind of slows us down.
“I thought it was a great effort by us and I’m really happy with how we played.”
Legette, the MIAA player of the year, bounced back nicely from a six-point outing against Pitt State to score a game-high 21 points. She was 5 of 11 from the field and 11 of 13 from the foul line.
“I just kind of let things come to me instead of trying to make things happen — that just made things a lot more easier for me," Legette said.
In the first half, MSU Moorhead senior guard Jacky Volkert almost single handedly kept the Dragons on the Tigers' heels. She had 16 of Moorhead’s first 19 points and finished the half with 18 as FHSU took a 35-29 lead into the break.
But Fort Hays kept Volkert under wraps in the second half, limiting her to just two points.
“We just tried to not let her get the ball back and made a more concerted effort that way, and I think it made it more difficult on her,” Hobson said. “Her shots were better contested. Definitely did a better job, and that’s why we put Maddie in there a few times, just to face guard somebody. And Taylor did a much better job on her in the second half.”
Mittie followed up Friday’s 11-point game with another solid outing, scoring six points and giving the Tigers a lift defensively while playing a season-high 20 minutes.
“Coach tell us every game that the bench needs to be ready to go, and if you go in, to make the most of your opportunity,” Mittie said. “I knew that these last couple games were big games and I needed to mentally prepare myself for them and if I get the opportunity, try to make the most of it.”
“It’s just important to have high-character kids on your team. Sometimes they might not play as much, but she’s still ready,” Hobson said of Mittie. “That says a lot about her, because some kids would quit and pack it in.”
Barbieri notched a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds while Kennett finished with 13 and Lanie Page added 10.
Page, who has been dealing with a stress fracture in her foot, showed progress after scoring just two points in the Pitt State win.
“She fought through it,” Hobson said. “She was better today just from having played (Friday). She really hadn’t got any reps for four days. She was a little rusty and her shot didn’t look great (Friday). I think she realized that she’s probably not going to hurt her foot any worse — it’s going hurt, just go play through it. She did a really good job of that.”
The Tigers went 24 of 53 from the field and 19 of 25 from the foul line while Moorhead was 25 of 61 from the floor and attempted just four free throws.
The Dragons, the NSIC regular-season champions, finished the season 27-7.
"I just thought there was no quit, which I would expect from this group," MSUM coach Karla Nelson said of her team. "(Fort Hays) is a tough team. Great environment to play in, but I would have liked a few more Dragon fans, there's no doubt. Just a really tough place to play.
"They've got experience. They had a lot of juniors that have played in this game before; I don't think we have that many. Just to see our fight and resiliency was what I would expect."
SWOSU BEATS UCM AT THE BUZZER
The Bulldogs used a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from sophomore guard Taber Beer to take a 75-72 win over Central Missouri in the first semifinal.
After a 3-pointer from UCM's Megan Skaggs tied the game at 72 with 17 seconds left, the Jennies' collapsed on SWOSU star Hailey Tucker in the final seconds, but Tucker found a wide-open Beer on the left wing. Beer drained the shot with 0.5 left on the clock.
“I just know that they’re going to lock up some of our best players,” Beer said. “I just told myself, ‘You might have to take this last shot,’ and I was ready for it. I let if fly and I held my followthrough. I was like, ‘Please go in.’”
“I was just excited. I just really wanted to win for my teammates.”
After a baseball pass on the inbound, Skaggs got off a deep, desperation 3-pointer, but it didn't draw iron.
The Jennies looked poised to remain in the hunt for a second straight national championship, building an eight-point lead with six minutes left.
UCM was still up three when Jennies' coach Dave Slifer was called for a technical foul with 1:43 left for arguing for a foul call after a UCM turnover. The technical helped create a four-point swing, with the Bulldogs getting two free throws from Tucker and a layup from Beer to move in front by a point with 1:30 left.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow for a lot of reasons,” Slifer said. “Bottom line, is somehow or another, I got T’d up. Didn’t swear, didn’t go on the court. Not very happy about it. I’m very frustrated with it.”
The Jennies ended their season at 25-7.
“Last year was one of the biggest highs ever, winning the national tournament,” Slifer said. “When you lose, particularly in the manner we lost, it’s about as low as you can get.”
Tucker, the Bulldogs' leading scorer at 18.7 points per game, led SWOSU with 27 points Saturday.
Fort Hays and SWOSU will take identical 32-1 records into Monday’s final. The regional championship game will be a rematch of last year’s regional quarterfinal that saw Fort Hays take a 75-72 win over SWOSU before the Tigers were eliminated by eventual national champion UCM in the semis.
“I saw a really good team — a hungry team that we beat in the first round last year in the regional,” Hobson said of SWOSU's win against UCM. “They had practically everybody back from last year, so did we. I was hoping we would be in this tournament and I figured they would be, too.
“I guess it’s kind of fate that we would meet in the finals.”
The Tigers will have to handle SWOSU's full-court pressure, which bothered both Emporia State and Central Missouri in SWOSU's first two regional games.
“We’re going to have to figure something out against their pressure, because they go full court most of the time," Hobson said. "They did four different things in the full court against Central Missouri. Central Missouri’s got a pretty salty point guard (Paige Redmond), and it was effective against her, so that scares me a little bit. I do think we have a good enough ball-handling team just down the line that we can figure something out. That will be the primary focus — just attacking that (press) and getting ready for that.
"If we play our best, we’re pretty hard to beat on our home floor, so we’re going to worry a lot about us."