Tigers drop another close one

Rick Peterson Jr.
Jared Vitztum shoots a jumper on Saturday against Emporia State at Gross Memorial Coliseum.

Two games, two heartbreakers for Fort Hays State men’s basketball.

After losing at the buzzer in Thursday’s opener against Washburn, Fort Hays found themselves in another nail-biter with Emporia State on Saturday.

The Tigers were locked at 62 with the Hornets with 1:05 left after a bucket from Kaleb Hammeke.

But a late blocking foul and a missed opportunity for a rebound loomed large for the Tigers, who suffered a 68-66 loss at Gross Memorial Coliseum to drop to 0-2.

“They made some big plays at the end and that really was the difference in the game,” FHSU senior forward Jared Vitztum said. “We just didn’t close it like we should have.

“Yeah, it’s tough to lose both these games that way, but it’s a good learning experience and hopefully it will help us in the future for sure.”

After Hammeke’s jumper tied it, ESU’s Brenden Van Dyke went to the line with 42 seconds left. He made the first and missed the second, but it was tapped out to the perimeter to Austin Downing for the offensive rebound, leading to two more points on the trip for ESU.

“It’s a big play,” FHSU coach Mark Johnson said. “The biggest thing is our guard has got to be at the top of the key, we talk about it all the time. Instead, that’s what young people do, he was over on the side and over by their bench and not where he needed to be.

“Those are things we just got to continue to get better. Hopefully, when you’re in these moments the next time around, you’ll do better.”

After ESU’s offensive board, Alvin Thompson was whistled for a blocking foul as Downing drove to the basket on a play the Tiger sideline argued was a charge. Dallas Bailey hit two free throws with 23 seconds left to make it a three-point game.

A Hammeke layup cut it to 1 before Downing made two free throws to push it back to three. Thompson then hit two foul shots on the other end to make it a one-point game again with 5.9 seconds left.

Fouled with 3.5 seconds on the clock, Jumah’Ri Turner hit one of two at the line, and Hammeke’s desperation heave bounced off the backboard.

“What I told the guys, it’s not the last possession and the last 30 seconds that are getting us beat,” Johnson said. “It’s leading up to that. We need to be up five or six instead of a tie game, one-point game.”

Whereas Johnson thought the Tigers’ youth showed at times, ESU coach Craig Doty said his team’s experience paid dividends down the stretch. The Hornets have six seniors.

“That’s the difference in winning these type of games and losing, especially when you go 2 for 19 behind the arc,” Doty said. “That we still won this game, it says a lot about how our guys defended and how we took care of the little things.”

ESU (2-0) led 32-30 at halftime on a buzzer-beating 3 from Turner. The game ended up featuring 12 ties and 14 lead changes. FHSU’s last lead (62-60) came after two free throws from Jared Vitztum with 2:42 left. ESU scored the next four points, including a dunk from Van Dyke off a Downing steal and assist.

Vitztum scored 17 of his game-high 20 points in the second half to lead the Tigers. He was Thompson was the only other Tiger in double figures with 11. He was 3 of 10 from the field but 13 of 17 from the foul line.

Downing led the Hornets with 19 points, while Turner added 18 and Mason Thiessen chipped in 11.

The Tigers shot 40 percent from the field, going just 4 of 21 from 3-point range. FHSU was 22 of 27 at the free throw line. ESU finished 20 of 50 from the floor.

“Our offensive guys need to get better defensively, and our defensive guys need to get better offensively,” Johnson said. “Right now that’s our biggest problem. We like to throw in a few guys to help us offensively, but that affects our defense. But then we have guys we put in defensively that affects our offense. We need some guys to be able to step up and play on both ends of the floor. I think if we can get to that point, good things will happen for us.”

Six-foot-9 true freshman Haggan Hilgendorf gave the Tigers a spark offensively in the first half, scoring seven points in eight minutes. Johnson will look for Hilgendorf to earn more time as he improves on the defensive end.

“Offensively, he’s really gifted,” Johnson said. “He scored seven points in eight minutes, but on the other end, he gave up seven points in eight minutes. He’s not the only one, but he needs to get better at the other end of the floor. A lot of that is just physical maturity and understanding what he needs to do. This is all new stuff for him. ... But no question he makes our offense better and we’d like to be able to get him out on the floor for longer periods of time.”

The Tigers are without point guard Nyjee Wright for the first semester as he recovers from foot surgery. Johnson said he was encouraged by the performances of Hammeke and Quinten Rock handling point duties.

“A lot of pressure was put on (Hammeke) and Quinten with Nyjee being out, having to step up and play that position right,” Johnson said. “I think they did a pretty good job. Hopefully, them and everybody else, continue to get better. We need to see growth week to week and game to game.”

The Tigers aren’t scheduled to play again until Dec. 5 at Nebraska-Kearney.

“Obviously very heartbreaking to start off 0-2 in one possession games,“ Johnson said. ”Trying to look the other way, the positive, we’re an awfully young team. I looked at one time, we had four freshman and a sophomore out there playing against a pretty experienced team, and we’re only possession away from winning.“

“If you think about, it’s just two possessions and we could be 2-0,” Vitztum said. “We got to figure out how to win these close games and play a little bit better in the last five minutes.”

Cowboy coaches

Doty and all of his assistants turned a few heads by sporting cowboy hats on the sideline on Saturday.

Doty said the fashion statement stemmed from seeing Emporia State athletic director Kent Weiser dressed as a cowboy on Halloween.

“He was wearing a cowboy hat with a mask,” Doty said. “My boss looked so cool. And I looked at him and said, ’That’s a look that we can do.’ If we got to wear these masks — which from a functional standpoint is necessary, it’s responsible — but as a coach, you kind of look silly in it, right?

“We’re bought into wearing a mask. I said, ’Let’s take the next step and look like our boss Kent Weiser did at Halloween.’ Let’s have some fun with it.”

Doty said the coaches plan on wearing the hats for the next few games.

Emporia State 68, Fort Hays State 66

Emporia State (2-0) — Downing 7-11 5-9 19, Turner 6-14 5-7 18, Thiessen 3-6 4-7 11, Van Dyke 1-3 3-4 5, Fort 1-4 2-2 4, McCray 2-4 0-0 4, Bailley 0-1 2-2 2, McGuire 2-4 0-0 4, Smith 1-2 0-0 2, Buom 0-0 1-2 1, Reid 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 22-50 22-33 68.

Fort Hays State (0-2) — Jonsson 2-3 0-0 4, Vitztum 3-10 13-17 20, Peters 2-3 0-0 4, Thompson 4-8 3-4 11, Hammeke 3-8 2-2 8, Pumphrey 1-6 0-0 2, Rock 2-7 2-2 8, Davis 0-1 2-2 2, Hilgendorf 3-4 0-0 7. Totals 20-50 22-27 66.

Halftime — ESU 32-30. 3-point goals — ESU 2-19 (Turner 1-5, Thiessen 1-4, Reid 0-2, Downing 0-2, Van Dyke 0-2, Fort 0-1, McCray 0-1, Dailey 0-1, McGuire 0-1), FHSU 4-21 (Rock 2-5, Hilgendorf 1-2, Vitztum 1-4, Jonsson 0-1, Thompson 0-1, Hammeke 0-3, Pumphrey 0-5). Assists — ESU 7 (Downing 2, Bailey 2), FHSU 10 (Rock 5). Total fouls — FHSU 18, ESU 14. Fouled out — none. Technical fouls — none.

Kaleb Hammeke puts up a desperation heave on Saturday at Gross Memorial Coliseum.