Fort Hays State men stumble vs. Griffons

Rick Peterson Jr.
Hays Daily News
Fort Hays State's Gilbert Peters scores inside during Tuesday's game vs. Missouri Western at Gross Memorial Coliseum. The Tigers lost 78-73.
Fort Hays State's Bjarni Jonsson puts up a shot inside on Tuesday against Missouri Western.
Fort Hays State's Nyjee Wright is trapped by Missouri Western's Tyrell Carroll and Q Mays during Tuesday's game at Gross Memorial Coliseum.

After spending much of this month improving its chances to make the MIAA Tournament, Fort Hays State's quest finally took a setback on Tuesday. 

The Tiger men fell short in an opportunity to virtually secure their spot in the tourney, taking a 78-73 loss to Missouri Western at Gross Memorial Coliseum. 

Fort Hays dropped to sixth place at 11-10 in the jumbled up MIAA standings, with Central Oklahoma (10-9), Pittsburg State (10-10), Rogers State (10-10) and Emporia State (9-10) all in pursuit behind the Tigers. The Tigers need to finish in the top eight to keep its season alive and make the conference tournament. 

FHSU will play at No. 1 Northwest Missouri State on Saturday in the regular-season finale.  

"The guys worked so hard to get to this position, we just didn't have quite enough today to finish it off," FHSU coach Mark Johnson said after Tuesday's loss. "We got to rally up and go to Northwest Missouri and see what we accomplish."

The Griffons (13-8) led by eight early in the second half, but the Tigers stayed within striking distance. FHSU cut the deficit down to three on six different occasions before drawing to within a point with 38 seconds remaining after two free throws from Nyjee Wright. 

FHSU then committed what Johnson said was an ill-advised foul on Tyrell Carroll with 28 seconds left, and Carroll made both shots to put the Griffons up three. 

The Tigers came up empty on the other end after Quinten Rock's floater was blocked. Reese Glover then sealed it for Western with two free throws. 

"We made poor decisions at the end of the game," Johnson said. "We don't want to foul (Carroll) at the end of the game. 

"...You have to execute better down the stretch. I feel like that has been a problem for us in close games out of timeouts. We just haven't done a really good job executing what you got to do to win the game. A lot of that is inexperience. We're a young, young team still, and these are new moments for them, but we got to see improvement ...  because most of these MIAA games come down to last-minute plays."

Carroll was the main catalyst for Western, finishing with a game-high 25 points while dishing out seven assists. 

Reigning MIAA player of the week Jared Vitztum notched his 13th double-double of the season with 20 points and 10 rebounds for the Tigers. 

The Tigers missed some costly free throws, finishing 17 of 24 from the line while Western was 20 of 22. They also struggled from 3, going just 4 of 22.

"Give credit to them, they have bodies that they can run out there," Vitztum said of the Griffons. "They have eight or nine guys that are super athletic. They play hard, they're well-coached. It was hard to get shots off, but when we did we couldn't just knock them down."

Western led 39-36 at halftime. Johnson said both teams looked too sluggish to start. 

"I really felt like the first 10 minutes of the game, you could really tell the season and COVID and the makeup games has really been a factor," Johnson said. "I thought both teams were tired and in a fog. This was our sixth game in 14 days, and (Western is) in the same boat as us. ... I felt like both teams were just not really themselves, just kind of out of it.

"I thought they found their groove a little earlier than we did," he added.

A big Griffon win was marred by an injury to Western standout sophomore forward Will Eames, last year's MIAA Freshman of the Year. Eames went down clutching his right knee with about six minutes left and did not return. 

"He's a great player, plays hard, gets the most out of his game," Johnson said. "You appreciate what he does to make himself a player. It didn't look good, didn't sound good, but you hope for the best and it isn't a major injury."

"It was tough to see him go down there,"  Vitztum said. "It's something you never want to see happen to anybody. I hope he's doing well."

Bjarni Jonsson joined Vitztum in double figures with 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting. Rock and Gilbert Peters added 11 and 10 points, respectively. 

Caleb Bennnett scored 17 and Q Mays had 15 for Western, which picked up its first road win over the Tigers since 2009. 

If the Tigers don't receive enough help from elsewhere around the league, they'll need a win over Northwest Missouri at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Maryville to secure their tournament spot.

"We'll lay it all out on the floor," Vitztum said. "Hopefully it's not our last game, but if it is, we'll go out there and play as hard as we can."