'Upbeat' Fort Hays State men's basketball team looks for success on road trip

Rick Peterson Jr.
Hays Daily News
Fort Hays State's Jared Vitztum drives to the basket last Saturday against Central Oklahoma.

A 3-0 homestand put the Fort Hays State men right in the thick of things to make the MIAA tournament.

Now the Tigers will look to bolster their position with three road games in four days in Oklahoma this week. 

Heading into Wednesday's 3:30 p.m. game with Central Oklahoma, the Tigers were sitting ninth in the conference with a 7-8 mark, just behind Emporia State and Lincoln, both 8-8, for the eighth spot in the standings. The top eight teams will make the MIAA Tournament.

The Tigers beat Nebraska-Kearney, 79-68, Newman, 69-64, and Central Oklahoma, 84-82, in their last three outings.

"We had a great homestand, really won some important games," FHSU coach Mark Johnson said. "Had some critical last five minutes of games the last two games to give us a chance to keep playing meaningful games here."

FHSU hopes its newfound depth will pay dividends in the grueling stretch this week. 

After suffering a severe ankle injury in the first practice of the season, redshirt sophomore guard Gabe Pieschl was cleared to play last month and has joined the Tigers' rotation. Johnson said Pieschl is particularly valuable on the defensive end. 

"Offensively, he looks like someone who hasn't been playing; he's not comfortable yet," Johnson said. "Still maybe not quite as quick as he normally is, just gaining confidence in that foot of his. He's active on defense, he does a good job of guarding, not only the guy he's guarding but he does a great job, kind of like (Bjarni Jonsson), they cover up for a lot of their teammates. 

"That's been a big improvement for our team, just being able to throw a guy like Gabe out there and what he brings to our team."

The Tigers are also easing Nyjee Wright into more minutes as he returns from surgery on a broken foot. Wright played sparingly in each of the two games last week. He rolled his ankle on Saturday against UCO but the Tigers hope to have him available for Wednesday.

Junior Jordan Pumphrey has also emerged off the bench over the last three weeks. 

"I think depth is going to be really important this week with as many games we're playing in a short period of time," Johnson said. "Hopefully our guys respond to it. I think we're still a fresh team. I don't think we're a team that's overly mentally and physically fatigued yet. 

"I think our guys our upbeat, excited to go out this trip and find a way to win some games to keep our chances going to make the conference tournament."

Pumphrey scored 19 points against Pitt State on Jan. 21, delivered a career-high 25 points against UNK on Jan. 30 and hit timely 3s as part of an 11-point outing vs. UCO  last Saturday. 

"Jordan needed a game or two to kind of get him going," Johnson said. "He's shooting it better and that's a big part of what you have to have in today's game. You got to be able to make threes in college basketball today to be any good."

FHSU freshman guard Quinten Rock broke out of a second-semester shooting slump with his second highest point total of the season, scoring 23 against UCO on Saturday.  He went 8 of 14 from the field and 5 of 10 from 3-point range. 

"I think it was in his head a little bit, too," Johnson said of Rock's shooting struggles. "Sometimes you can work at it too much. They've really been in the gym a lot, really since second semester, after practice, later in the day, in the evening shooting. Shooting can be in your head a little bit. You've got to have confidence. Hopefully this carries over the rest of the season for him."

The earlier start time for Wednesday's UCO rematch helped FHSU get to its next game on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. against Rogers State in Claremore, Okla. The Tigers will then close out the road swing at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Northeastern State. 

"I'm not really worried about the physical, it's just the mental," Johnson said. "You got to get yourself turned up three times in four days to win a game. Our league is too good; we just don't have anybody on our schedule that you just show up and give a so-so effort and expect to win. It's just can we turn it up and be intense and focus and locked in and ready to go three times in four days, especially in February? That will be a big challenge for us, and hopefully we're mature enough and understand the importance of these games."

FHSU senior forward Jared Vitztum entered Wednesday's game nine points away from the 1,000 point mark for his career. 

The TMP-Marian product averages 18.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game and has eight double-doubles on the season to lead the NCAA Division II ranks.