A raucous Fort Hays State crowd came to Gross Memorial Coliseum ready to explode early, but Southwestern Oklahoma State made the Tiger faithful wait a little while before they had a reason to erupt during Monday’s NCAA Division II Central Regional final.

The Bulldogs stormed out of the gate with a 16-2 run, forcing the Tigers to spend much of the first half trying to mount a rally. 

The Tigers succeeded in cutting the deficit down to three by halftime, but another big Bulldog run in the third quarter was too much to overcome as SWOSU handed FHSU an 88-77 season-ending loss in front a crowd of 5,055 in the regional title game.

Fort Hays was held without a field goal for the first 6:14 of the game, missing its first eight shots, including six layups.

“We just got off to such a bad start that we expended a lot of energy getting back into it by halftime,” FHSU coach Tony Hobson said. “We missed two many free throws (eight) in the first half and we just didn’t convert on some easy shots inside that we needed to get. … You have to make your easy shots because you don’t get very many of them. It’s not going to work against a good team like that. They haven’t won 33 straight because it’s a fluke. They’re a good team and tonight they were better than us.”

SWOSU, which came into the game averaging 84.6 points per game, showed why its one of the most potent teams in the country.

The Tigers (32-2) had trouble staying in front of Great American Conference Player of the Year Hayden Priddy, who burned Fort Hays for a game-high 32 points. She was was 12 of 18 from the field and 5 of 9 from 3-point range.

“We couldn’t get her out of the lane; they’re hard to help off of because they all shoot it so well,” Hobson said. “That goes back to having wing players trying to guard the point, but we should’ve been able to do a better job of that.”

FHSU managed to weather the storm in the second quarter, with a 3-point play from MIAA Player of the Year Tatyana Legette helping to ignite an 11-2 run that would bring the Tigers within a point with 1:08 left in the half. SWOSU led 43-40 at the break.

“When I got couple and-ones, it was just kind of a confidence booster,” Legette said. “We had a game like that before against (Nebraska-Kearney), down by 20, and we came back and ended up winning it. None of us lost faith.”

The Tigers got within a point twice in the first minute of the second half but couldn’t grab the lead. SWOSU gained separation again with an 8-0 run to open up a 10-point lead with 6:05 left in third and Priddy scored the last seven points of the quarter to stretch the Bulldogs’ lead to 16 heading into the fourth quarter.

Priddy, who was named the regional tournament’s most outstanding player, said she didn’t see her huge game coming.

“Today in shoot-around I couldn’t hit the broad side of the barn. I couldn’t throw it in the ocean,” Priddy said. “Honestly, my confidence was a little shaken, I was a little moody. I did not expect that. … It was just falling for me. My teammates just kept pulling the defenders away from the rim so I could attack.”

The Tigers had one last push, using a 13-3 run to slice it down to seven with 3:15 left after a Legette steal and a jumper from Madison Mittie. But SWOSU, which advanced to next week’s NCAA Division II Elite Eight in Columbus, Ohio, sealed the game with free throws down the stretch.

“I told our team there was one thing I was really proud of — they didn’t quit,” Hobson said. “It would have been easy to fold the tents right there against that team. We clawed back in a couple different times — part of that was due to (Legette). She played as hard as she could and had a good game for us.”

In her last game as a Tiger, Legette recorded 19 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists. FHSU sophomore Whitney Randalll scored a career-high 20 points off the bench and junior Belle Barbieri finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds.

Hailey Tucker added 14 points for SWOSU while Taylor Hedrick chipped in 11 for the Bulldogs, who went 28 of 62 from the field and 24 of 34 from the foul line.

“The way they came out in that first quarter, man, I was really proud of their effort and their energy and their fight,” SWOSU coach Kelsi Musick said of her team. “We didn’t play well in the second quarter but I think we did what we needed to in the third. Obviously, I can always find mistakes, but at this point I couldn’t be more excited and more proud of this group of seniors and this entire team for everything that they have done, for buying in and believing for us to be at this point and for us to win the Central Region.”

The Tigers committed a manageable 14 turnovers against SWOSU’s full-court pressure, but Hobson said the pressure still took its toll on FHSU, which finished 28 of 74 from the the field and 2 of 16 from 3-point range.

“I think it’s just kind of a cumulative effect, where you’re facing (the pressure) all game. You never have time to take a deep breath,” Hobson said. “If you’re not just really wired in, just a one-second lapse, they’ll take it from you.”

Legette and Barbieri earned spots on the all-tournament team. Priddy was joined on the team by Tucker and sophomore guard Taber Beer, who hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer against Central Missouri to send the Bulldogs to the final.

It was the conclusion to one of the best season in program history for the Tigers, who won the MIAA regular-season championship by three games and also claimed the conference tournament title for the first time.

“This is a bad night, but it's by no means a bad year,” Hobson said. “This was a historic year.”