For the Fort Hays State University men’s basketball team, things couldn’t have started any better.
Things ended pretty well for the Tigers, too.
The effort Monday night in the team’s final game before the Christmas break was enough to bring out a rave review from longtime coach Mark Johnson.
“I thought this was our best game of the year, our most complete game of the season,” Johnson said. “It was a nice way to finish the first semester.”
The Tigers hit their first seven shots from the field, then hit back-to-back 3-pointers to start the second half en route to rolling to a 90-63 win over Newman University at Gross Memorial Coliseum. It was the Tigers’ seventh win in the last eight games.
“Sometimes, things are clicking and it just feels good,” said senior Hadley Gillum.
The Plainville product had another big night, finishing with 25 points in only 26 minutes of playing time. He hit 9 of 14 shots from the field, was perfect on all five tries from the free-throw line and also pulled down five rebounds. Oh yeah, he also had three assists as FHSU finished with 21 on 27 made field goals in the blowout.
“Everybody has been putting in the work, and it pays off when you’re out here playing games finally,” said Gillum, who is averaging 18.2 points a night for the 9-3 Tigers.
Fort Hays bolted out of the gates thanks to the hot shooting to build an early lead.
But Newman (5-6) came back to take a 24-22 lead with 7:49 to play before halftime.
The lead was short-lived, as junior Grant Holmes sank a triple at the other end, giving the Tigers a 25-24 lead with 7:22 to play.
It was the final time FHSU would trail in the contest. In fact, the Tigers led for all but 27 seconds of the 40 minutes.
“We moved the ball well and tried to play inside-out,” Holmes said. “Our bigs played well and then kicked it out to our guards, and our guards shot well. It was a good night.”
Holmes didn’t miss a shot all night, finishing 4 of 4 from the field and 2 of 2 at the line to finish with 12 points.
“We’ve been playing decent, and we knew we had a break coming up,” Holmes said. “We were just trying to get two wins and go into break on a positive note. That’s what we did.”
The Tigers shot a scorching 56 percent in the first half, then got even better in the second half by making 59 percent from the field.
“I thought our guys were really locked in tonight,” Johnson said. “This is a dangerous game, the last one before Christmas. You never know how your guys are going to respond. I thought our guys were focused. … I thought it was our most complete game of the season. I thought we guarded really well. They have a couple guards that are really good, and I thought our guys did a good job of not letting them get shots and get going. And we ran our offense well. Trey hit some shots, and Hadley was efficient in getting his 25 points. All in all, it was great by everyone involved.”
As hot as FHSU was on offense, the team was just as deadly defensively. The Tigers held the Jets’ top three scorers this season — Ben Ayre (13.7 points), Dametrius Walker (12.4) and Kevin Bryant (10.7) — to a combined 17 points on 4-of-11 shooting. Eight of their points came at the free throw line.
“That’s kind of where it starts,” Gillum said about the defense. “You play hard and play good defense, and then the offense comes with it.”
The Jets had only one player score in double figures — Andre Sands with 18 off the bench.
“Our guys did a great job with the game plan,” said Johnson, whose team led 43-30 at halftime. “We didn’t want their guards to get going. We tried to stay out on them, and No. 23 had a good night for them. But that’s what we wanted was to make somebody beat us at the rim for two-pointers instead of letting their guards get out there and hurt us from deep.”
Gillum scored 15 of his points in the second half before exiting with just less than seven minutes to play. His 3-pointer to start the final half was the beginning of a quick 6-0 spurt by the Tigers that pushed the lead to 49-30 after Trey O’Neil’s triple.
“We have so many guys that can put up double figures, it’s just a matter of whose night is it going to be,” Gillum said.
The lead grew to as many as 32 points with just less than 31/2 minutes to play.
“It’s all we wanted, to get a win and go enjoy Christmas with our families,” said Holmes, who scored his 12 points in only 14 minutes.
The next action for the Tigers will be at 4 p.m. Dec. 30 when they host McPherson College before returning to MIAA play Jan. 4 on the road at Central Missouri.
“It gives us more confidence and puts us right into Christmas break to enjoy it,” Gillum said. “We’ll be ready to work hard once we get back after break.”