The Fort Hays State men got back to the staples of Fort Hays State basketball on Saturday against Nebraska-Kearney, picking up a much-needed conference win in the process.
Relying on a stout defensive effort and a balanced offensive attack, the Tigers overtook the Lopers 69-56 at Gross Memorial Coliseum to end a three-game MIAA slide.
“I really thought we won it with defense and rebounding, which at times has been a struggle for us,” FHSU coach Mark Johnson said. “I thought we got back to what we do. That’s Fort Hays basketball right there. We guarded well, rebounded well.”
Perry Carroll helped stake the Tigers (9-11, 2-9 MIAA) to a 37-28 halftime lead, scoring 12 of his team-high 14 points in the first half. Jared Vitztum added 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds while Aaron Nicholson chipped in 11 points. Eight of the nine Tigers that played had at least four points.
“I think that’s what we have to be,” Johnson said of the scoring balance. “Jared’s kind of been our leading scorer, seems like the last few weeks, every night. We need other guys to step up and do it as a group, that’s who we are.”
The Tigers used an 11-0 run, buoyed by a 3-pointer from Nyjee Wright and a 3-point play from Devin Davis, to open up an 18-point lead early in the second half. UNK (12-8, 6-5 MIAA) trimmed FHSU’s lead to eight with a run midway through the second half, but the Tigers quickly pushed it back to double figures and stayed in control the rest of the way.
“We really tried to keep our energy up at halftime,” Vitztum said. “We came in and said it’s not over yet. We just came out and played really hard in that second half and got the win.”
FHSU shot 52 percent from the field and went 16 of 18 from the foul line. The Tiger defense held Kearney to 44 percent from the floor. A.J. Jackson paced UNK with 23 points while Morgan Soucie added 14. FHSU owned a 30-22 rebounding advantage.
“We were having to go small, we couldn’t play some of our true big guys because it was a tough matchup,” Johnson said. “Calvin (Harrington) I thought did a nice job trying to battle A.J. Jackson down there around the post. Calvin’s more of a perimeter player and I thought he did a good job battling down there.”
Johnson credited his team for keeping a positive attitude despite its struggles in conference play.
“Our guys have showed a lot of character, just practicing hard every day and staying together, not dropping their heads and blaming others, just keep going and keep going," Johnson said. "They were rewarded, and you want to see these guys rewarded for being good guys and doing it the right way.”
Now the Tigers will look for a late-season surge. They have two home games this week, facing Newman on Thursday and Central Oklahoma on Saturday.
“You had to gain some momentum for next week," Johnson said. "Like I said, they’re all winnable, but also they’re all losable. But we just need to play like we did tonight as far as intensity and being physical.”
“Like coach was saying, the schedule is turning for us right now,” Vitztum added. “We’re 2-9 in conference, yeah, that’s not very good, but we have eight more games left and we can really turn it around here. We got one tonight, let’s get one next Thursday and keep it rolling.”