After keeping Pittsburg State at arm's length for most of the second half, the Fort Hays State women had to survive one last push from the Gorillas in order to notch a crucial MIAA victory on Monday at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
The Tigers led from the middle of the first quarter on, but Pitt State made it a dramatic finish, pulling within a point twice in the final 2:48 of the game after starting the fourth quarter down 10.
PSU went to the foul line with 5.9 seconds left, but Athena Alvarado missed both free throws to keep Fort Hays in front by a point. FHSU's Kacey Kennett came down with the rebound and was fouled with 2.9 seconds left.
Kennett missed both free throws, but Pitt State's desperation heave was well off the mark, and the Tigers escaped with a 75-74 victory.
"It was super fun,” FHSU junior guard Jaden Hobbs said. “The atmosphere that the fans made for the last 20 seconds or whatever it was, it was awesome. I haven’t played in a game that close or that loud in a long time. That was a cool experience to have under my belt.”
Hobbs converted a key 3-point play to push the Tigers lead to five with 3:40 left, but Pitt State stayed on the Tigers' heels. A three-point play by PSU's Maya Williams put the Gorillas within one with 2:48 left. After a Tigers' defensive stop, a layup by Kennett extended the lead back to three.
Alvarado made it a one-point game again on a hook shot with 1:30 left for the last point of the games.
FHSU came up with another defensive stop with 42 seconds left but turned it over with 14 remaining to give Pitt State a chance to take the lead. Alvarado was fouled in the post before missing the two free throws.
“We all contributed to making it a little closer than it could have been by missed free throws, couple bad turnovers, but then everybody contributed to winning it and hanging in there," FHSU coach Tony Hobson said. "They had two or three chances to get us there at the end and our defense stiffened up, and we benefited from a couple missed free throws."
It was a huge win for the Tigers (11-2, 2-2 MIAA) in their only regular-season meeting with the Gorillas, who dropped to 7-5 overall and 3-1 in the MIAA.
“If you start the season 1-3 and lose at home, it makes that hope of playing for an MIAA title a lot harder hill to climb,” Hobson said. “... To get them when you only play them once is big.”
Whitney Randall led the Tigers with 15 points and Hobbs added 14 points and dished out six assists, while Cydney Bergmann delivered 13 big points off the bench, all in the first half. Taylor Rolfs and Belle Barbieri each contributed 10 points.
Pittsburg State was led by Alvardo's 21 points. She was joined in double figures by Tristan Gegg (12), Williams (11) and Kaylee DeMitz (10).
The Gorillas finished 34 of 56 from the field (60.7 percent) but were held to 1 of 12 from 3-point range. Fort Hays State went 27 of 56 from the field and 17 of 26 from the foul line while Pitt State was 5 of 8 from the stripe. The Tiger forced the Gorillas into 17 turnovers.
“We just didn’t make quite enough shots to keep it comfortable, but our defense stiffened up when we needed it to," Hobson said.
“I think we just kept continuing to play,” Hobbs said. “Like any team, everybody goes through adversity a little bit and we had our fair share of that, but I think we did a good job of just grinding through that and keep attacking the rim, no matter what, and just getting defensive stops.”
The Tigers gained some breathing room with a strong finish to the second quarter, closing the frame on a 10-2 run to take a 43-32 advantage into the break.
Bergmann scored all 13 of her points in the first half to provide the Tigers an early spark.
“Cydney plays with kind of a reckless abandon that is good when you’re athletic,” Hobson said. “If you’re non-athletic, you can’t get by with it. But she gets to the basket and makes a lot of hustle plays.”
While the Tigers had success keeping the Gorillas contained from the perimeter, Pitt State had success pounding it inside to Alvarado and Willams.
“I thought we covered up (the 3-point) line good and contested well, but sometimes when you do that something has to give,” Hobson said. “Their 4 and 5 are really good post-up players, and (Alvarado) can really finish around the basket. We weren’t rotating and dropping down like we were supposed to, but that’s easier said than done.”
Meanwhile, the Tigers got a big chunk of their points by driving to the basket.
“That was kind of the plan, because defensively, while they’re really athletic, I think they play just kind of head up and they don’t help a lot," Hobson said. "If you can’t take it to the basket, you’re going to have a hard time scoring on them.”
FHSU will play at Northeastern State at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in Tahlequah, Okla., before facing Rogers State in Claremore, Okla., at 2 p.m. Saturday.