Defense fed the offense.
And it was a tale of two halves Thursday night.
The story ended as happily as it could for the Fort Hays State University men’s basketball team.
The Tigers, struggling to find the bucket in the first half, surged in the second and turned a four-point deficit into a 19-point win, taking out Missouri Western State University 61-42 at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
The Tigers, after making just six first-half field goals, got the ball rolling in a big way in the second half, feeding off a defense that contained the visitors to just 14 points after halftime, to move to 12-5 overall and 5-3 in the MIAA ahead of Saturdays showdown with Northwest Missouri State University, the defending NCAA Division II national champion.
“That first half there were a few of us that got into foul trouble,” said Tiger senior Hadley Gillum, who led all scorers with 19 points after his second-half offensive surge. “That obviously affected us. The second half we came out and played a lot better defense and that usually carries over to the offensive end.”
Despite the shooting struggles early, though, the start wasn’t all bad. FHSU built a 10-2 lead behind four early points for Gillum mixed with a pair of 3s for sophomore guard Aaron Nicholson.
Missouri Western, though, responded with a 15-2 run later, and took its first lead at 19-18 at the 6:48 mark.
“We knew going in the pace of play was going to be a grind-it-out slow game,” Tiger head coach Mark Johnson said. “Really couldn’t ever get any separation.”
The bigger story, though, was the absence of Tiger junior center Brady Werth. The 6-foot-7 Hays High School product likely will miss considerable time with illness, missing his first game Thursday.
That led to some foul trouble early and a little lack of depth. With the emergence though of Jared Vitztum, the Tigers’ 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman and the return of sophomore Payton Stephens from an ankle injury, it just took a little time to get things going Thursday. Vitztum was coming off a career performance from Saturday’s win against University of Nebraska-Kearney.
“We had two guys right there to back (Werth) up,” Gillum said. “Obviously you can’t replace the guy, but those guys did a good job of stepping up inside and helping out.”
With the lack of scoring early, FHSU turned to defense in a big way, something that might have to be the Tigers identity from here on out — and rely even more heavily on Gillum.
“Just play through him, and hopefully the defense has to concentrate so much on him, our other guys will get some looks,” Johnson said.
The defense, though, told the story Thursday, including the play of junior Marcus Cooper, who grabbed 11 rebounds and had two steals.
“The main focus at halftime was not defending and rebounding as tough and physical as we needed to be,” Johnson said. “Complete opposite the second half.”
The Tigers will need to match that intensity, and then some, with Northwest Missouri and last year’s National Player of the Year in point guard Justin Pitts. Especially considering the Bearcats are coming off a loss, a 66-59 setback Thursday at Nebraska-Kearney, a team the Tigers just beat Saturday. Ranked No. 1 before suffering losses to Missouri Southern State University and the Lopers, the Bearcats were the preseason favorite to repeat in the MIAA. Pitts, the starting point guard, is someone Johnson calls the best player they’ve ever been up against.
Due to a scheduling anomaly, this will be Pitts’ first trip to GMC.
“We’re pumped. We’re excited,” Gillum said. “Any time someone comes into Gross, we think we’ve got a chance to win. We’re going to go out there, give it all. If we do, I think we’ve got a chance to win it.”
While being the best point guard in the conference, Pitts also is one of the most prolific scorers, averaging 21.4 points per game which ranks him second in the conference. Gillum sits fifth at 17.7 a night.
“He probably has the best decision making from a point guard I’ve ever seen,” Johnson said of Pitts.
The Tigers sit in a tie for fifth place with Central Oklahom in the conference race. The Bearcats are second with a 7-2 conference mark, while Washburn leads the pack with an 8-0 conference record. With the loss Thursday, Missouri Western dropped to 3-13 overall and 1-8 in conference play.