Thanks to a nearly flawless stretch of play in the second half against Northeastern State, the Fort Hays State men took another big step forward in their bid to make the MIAA Tournament.
After trailing by as much as 16 points in the first half, the Tigers were still down eight with 15:40 left in the game before unleashing a 19-0 run to seize control en route to an 87-80 comeback win on Senior Day on Saturday at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
The Tigers (13-13, 6-11 MIAA) shot a blistering 60 percent from the field after halftime, going 15 of 25 from the field and 6 of 10 from 3-point range.
"Offensively in the second half, we were as good as we can be," FHSU coach Mark Johnson said. "We were great."
FHSU junior forward Jared Vitztum scored a career-high 25 points on 10 of 14 shooting while senior forward Jake Hutchings turned in one of his best games in his lone season at Fort Hays, adding 18 points with four 3-pointers. Perry Carroll gave the Tigers a spark off the bench with 13 points while Devin Davis and Nyjee Wright added 11 each.
"Jared and Jake obviously took advantage of being able to pick and pop on those guys and played extremely well,"Johnson said. "I thought Perry really gave us a boost on both ends.
"I thought Devin really did a good job of picking his moments and getting other guys shots at times."
The Tigers, needing to finish in the top 10 in the conference standings to make the MIAA Tournament, sit tied for ninth with Central Oklahoma at 6-11. Central Missouri and Pittsburg State are both one game back at 5-12. Fort Hays will play at Central Oklahoma on Thursday in a game that could make or break its tournament prospects.
FHSU has won five of its last seven conference games after losing nine of the first 10 games in MIAA play.
"After we were 0-6 and 1-9, who would’ve thought the last week would have any meaning for us," Johnson said. "Give the guys a lot of credit for sticking with it and hanging in there. It just took us a little longer to figure out what we needed to do — not only as players but coaches. Each team is different and you’ve got to play a little bit to figure out what you’ve got to do to get better, and I think our guys have done a good job of figuring it out and doing the things necessary."
FHSU trailed Northeastern State (17-10, 10-8 MIAA) trailed 30-14 but fought back to slice the deficit down to five on a 3-pointer from Hutchings with 30 seconds left in the half. NSU pushed the lead to eight (41-33) at the break after a buzzer-beating 3 from Caleb Smith, one of seven NSU treys in the half.
A three-point play from Vitztum with 15:05 left started FHSU’s massive run. Nyjee Wright then hit two free throws, and a 3 from Hutchings tied it with 14:05 left.
Devin Davis’ 3-point play gave the Tigers a 51-48 lead and FHSU went on to push the lead to 11 after Hutchings capped off the 19-0 run with a layup. The Tiger lead then grew to 17 points with 5:21 remaining.
"Making shots is contagious," said Hutchings, who was one of four seniors recognized before the game along with Davis, Calvin Harrington and Aaron Nicholson. "Seeing one go in, it seems like everybody can’t miss after that."
"This is time of year that you want to be playing your best basketball," he added. "I think that’s what were doing right now. We’ve got to carry it over."
Smith led the RiverHawks with 26 points, and Kendrick Thompson added 16.