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Fort Hays State women's basketball gains sole possession of first place in MIAA standings

Rick Peterson Jr.
Hays Daily News
FHSU's Madison Mittie, left, and Jaden Hobbs, right, celebrate after the Tigers beat Central Missouri on Saturday to claim sole possession of first place in the MIAA.

The job's not quite finished yet, but the Fort Hays State women are sitting in the driver's seat in the MIAA title race. 

The Tigers find themselves in that desirable position after stretching their win streak to 13 with Saturday's 72-63 victory over Central Missouri at Gross Memorial Coliseum. 

FHSU grabbed sole possession of first place in the MIAA at 18-2, a game ahead of UCM and Nebraska-Kearney with two games left in the regular season slate. 

"I couldn't be prouder of the kids," FHSU coach Tony Hobson said. "... I'd say our game today was about as good as we've been against anybody."

The No. 8 Tigers shook off a slow start to snap UCM's 11-game winning streak, trailing by 10 early in the second quarter before unleashing a 19-5 second quarter run.

It was tied at 49 entering the fourth quarter but FHSU outscored the Jennies 23-14 in the final frame, avenging a road loss to UCM in early January. 

"I'm just thankful we were put in a situation today where two good teams could go at it, and we were fortunate enough to come out on top," FHSU senior Jaden Hobbs said. 

Hobbs turned in one of her better all-around games of a stellar season. She filled up the stat sheet with 16 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds, 2 steals and a block in 39:29 on the floor. 

"I did give her 31 seconds of rest, so I would expect that out of her," Hobson said wryly of his workhorse point guard. "...When the game's on the line, she's as good as I've ever had."

Whitney Randall added 15 points, while freshmen Katie Wagner and Jessie Sallach finished with 12 and 10, respectively. 

Fort Hays State's Katie Wagner tries a scoop shot on Saturday against Central Missouri.

It took some time for the Tigers to find their stroke, going 3 of 15 from the field in the first quarter. But FHSU outscored UCM 23-12 in the second frame to take a four-point lead into halftime. 

"Just fighting through adversity," Hobbs said of the Tigers' turnaround in the second quarter. "You know, they hit us in the mouth early. Just remained calm and kept doing what we do best and fighting through the adversity, that's what we tried to do the whole second quarter."

The Tigers gained some breathing room with an 8-0 run to start the final frame. Olivia Hollenbeck hit two free throws to open the quarter. Sallach then converted a 3-point play, followed by Sydney Golladay's corner 3-pointer that gave FHSU an 57-49 lead with 8:18 left. 

UCM was within five with under seven minutes remaining before Hobbs hit FHSU's sixth and final 3-pointer of the game to restore an eight-point lead. 

"We didn't hit a lot of (3s), but the timing was just key," Hobson said. 

FHSU's Jaden Hobbs drives in the lane on Saturday against Central Missouri.

Emma Ruddle's layup off a Hobbs dish made it a 10-point game with 6:02 remaining, and the Jennies never got closer than six the rest of the way. 

The Tigers had just five turnovers while forcing UCM into 13. 

"To play that level of a game against that team and only have five turnovers is just ridiculous," Hobson said. "That's what happens when you have someone like Jaden who is rock solid with the ball and can take care of it."

Hobson praised the tenacity of the freshman Sallach, who pulled down five rebounds and was tough in the post. 

"Jessie Sallach, it's like we've released a demon sometimes," Hobson said. "She can board and she's strong. She went and got some of those and brought them out of traffic. When we got Olivia in a little bit of foul trouble, it was so key to have (Sallach) confident enough to come in and pick up the slack."

Jennies' leading scorer Nija Collier scored just six points after being limited to just 18 minutes of playing time because of foul trouble. The senior forward, who entered averaging 15.2 points a game, picked up her fifth personal while guarding Hollenbeck in the post with 3:42 left in a six-point game. 

"She has a tendency to get fouls because she likes to block shots, and she's an active player, so we wanted to go at her," Hobson said. 

"I just thought our freshman posts played strong in there. It was big getting (forwards Collier and Graycen Holden) in foul trouble because they're a different team without them. Just like we're a little different without (Cydney) Bergmann playing."

The rapid rise of Hollenbeck and Sallach inside has been instrumental in the Tigers' vault to the top of the standings. 

"I think it's really fun (to watch them) from my perspective as a senior, remembering how I was as a freshman and watching how they've developed," Hobbs said. "Not only the two post players, but all the freshmen have gotten significantly better from the beginning of the year. It's just great. I'm excited for them and it's fun to be able to watch that."

UCM freshman point guard Olivia Nelson proved to be the Jennies' top source of offense, finishing with 20 points and six assists.

"The second half we were having a hard time containing her; we did a really good job the first half," Hobson said. "But she's just an excellent little player."

The Tigers finished 41.4% from the floor (24 of 58) while holding the Jennies to a 34.4%  (22 of 64). After a hot start from 3, the Jennies finished just 9 of 29 from behind the arc. 

Despite the crowd limit because of the pandemic, the 1,250 fans in attendance were enough to provide energy and amplify the atmosphere, Hobson said. 

"This was the second time this year where we had enough people here that it was loud, when it's usually like you just can't hear yourself think," Hobson said. "We had that Saturday game against Kearney, but this was even better, and we gave them something to cheer for. We made a run, got ahead and we played well.

"That's one reason I get some of these kids, because they want to play in front of an enthusiastic crowd and they want to play for a winner, and we can give them both of those things."

FHSU can clinch at least a share of the conference title with a win at Missouri Western on Thursday. They will close out the regular season at Northwest Missouri on Saturday. 

After losing a decorated senior class and entering the year with a young squad including six freshmen, the Tigers were tabbed fifth in the MIAA preseason coaches poll. 

"This one would be sweet," Hobson said of the potential MIAA championship. 

"A Christmas present, if you know you're getting it and you think should, isn't near as cool as when somebody surprises you. That's kind of what this would be.

"But we've got two road games that are not going to be gifts. Both teams are still playing hard."

FHSU's Sydney Golladay brings the ball up while being guarded by Central Missouri's Olivia Nelson.