Tiger men look to make push for MIAA Tournament

Rick Peterson Jr.
Hays Daily News

If the Fort Hays State men are going to make a push to reach the MIAA Tournament, the Tigers know the run needs to start now. 

FHSU's Kaleb Hammeke dribbles on the perimeter in a game earlier this season against Northwest Missouri. The Tiger men will play host to Northwest Missouri at 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Fort Hays (4-8) will need to climb to the eighth spot in the standings to make the conference tournament, which will be held at campus sites this year. Heading into Thursday night's games, Pittsburg State sat in the No. 8 spot in the standings with a 6-7 record. FHSU is in the 11th spot in the standings. 

The Tigers will start a three-game homestand when they face Nebraska-Kearney (5-8) at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Gross Memorial Coliseum. The contest will follow the women's game at 2 p.m. 

"The guys understand the importance of this stretch coming up if we want to make a run to get to the conference tournament," FHSU coach Mark Johnson said. "We've got six of our next nine at home. This is kind of go-time for us."

The Tigers went 1-1 last week on the road. They pulled out a 102-94 overtime win at Missouri Southern on Thursday before falling 79-68 at Pittsburg State on Saturday after losing track of the Gorillas early, trailing 53-21 at halftime.

"We had to get at least one win on the road (last week) and we did that," Johnson said. "It was just more of a disappointment in the way we played in the first half Saturday that kind of put a sour note on the road trip. But all in all, for three of the four halves, I thought we played pretty well."

The Tigers' shooting percentage have dipped and turnovers have increased since the second semester. 

"It's the grind," Johnson said. "These guys are all new to this. It's different at our level. The season's longer, you play more games, the competition's harder. You don't have any off nights in our league. You've got to come ready to play. It doesn't matter what place (the opponent) is in the standings.

"... We're hoping coming home here and having three straight at home, that with our home goals we can get it going again and guys get their confidence back with their shot."

Junior guard Jordan Pumphrey was a bright spot in the Tigers' loss the Gorillas. He scored a career-high 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting. It was his first double-digit scoring game since the season opener. 

"We need shooting," Johnson said. "He's a guy that shoots it pretty well in practice. It hasn't transferred to games until the Pittsburg State game. Sometimes it's hard to (shoot well) when you don't get a lot of minutes. It's easier to shoot it when you're playing the whole game and you know you're going to get a lot of looks."

"We need more depth at the guard spot. When guys are struggling we need the ability to go to others."

Help might be on the way for the Tigers. Redshirt sophomore guard Gabe Pieschl saw limited action last week after recovering from an ankle injury he suffered before the season started. 

"Hopefully he can continue to progress health wise so we can get him in the rotation a little bit," Johnson said. "He'll make a difference on both ends of the floor and continue to add some depth for us."

Johnson the Tigers are also hoping junior guard Nyjee Wright will be cleared to return next week. Wright, a starter last year, is on the mend after undergoing surgery for a broken foot in the preseason. 

UNK won the first matchup with the Tigers 84-80 on Dec. 5. 

Johnson said a key for the Tigers will be handling screens from the Lopers. Jake Walker leads UNK with 15.7 points per game while Austin Luger averages 14.5 points. 

"The way they (screen) and where they do it from, they're hard to switch," Johnson said. "We tried to switch (in the first matchup) and they just took advantage of the size differential.

"... Their whole key to their season — really, like all of us, but even more for them — is shooting. ... They're one of the bottom three-point shooters (32%) in the conference, and against Pitt, they shot it well and they win. They're starting to shoot it better. When they make threes, they become a lot better."