Slow start dooms Tigers in MIAA Tournament final

Rick Peterson Jr.
Hays Daily News
Fort Hays State's Jaden Hobbs passes off the ball during the Tigers' 57-51 loss to Nebraska-Kearney in the MIAA title game on Sunday at Gross Memorial Coliseum. [Rick Peterson Jr./Hays Daily News]
FHSU's Katie Wagner gets set for a turnaround jumper on Sunday against Nebraska-Kearney at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
FHSU's Tony Hobson draws up a play in the late stages of the Tigers' 57-51 loss to Nebraska-Kearney in the MIAA title game.

A rough start derailed the Fort Hays State women's basketball team's bid to add an MIAA Tournament title alongside the Tigers' regular season championship. 

The Tigers found themselves down by as much 16 in the first half against Nebraska-Kearney after an ice-cold start from the field. FHSU cut it down to three in in the fourth quarter but couldn't overtake the Lopers down the stretch, falling 57-51 in Sunday's tournament final at Gross Memorial Coliseum. 

"We just got off to a horrible start," FHSU coach Tony Hobson said. "We missed a couple easy ones, missed a couple free throws, just a little bit of everything. We appeared a little sluggish to start the game, and they weren't. 

"We played a good team, and you can't get behind that far against a good team and battle back. It's just so hard."

The loss snapped a 17-game winning streak for the No. 5-ranked Tigers, who were announced Sunday night at as the No. 1 seed in next week's NCAA Central Regional Tournament. Fort Hays State will play the winner of fourth-seeded Central Missouri and fifth-seeded St. Cloud State on Saturday at 5 p.m. with a trip to the regional championship game on the line.

The Tigers (22-3) missed their first seven shots of the g and trailed 19-7 at halftime. The Lopers built a 27-11 advantage in the second quarter. 

At one point the Tigers were 3 of 21 from the field before hitting their last three attempts of the half. UNK led 29-18 at the break. 

"Defense wasn't the issue. They scored 10 the second quarter," Hobson said. "It was just that we were so inefficient — missed shots and weren't getting good shots."

The Tigers closed to the gap to six early in the third quarter after a 3-pointer from Madison Mittie. But the Lopers had a strong finish to the end of the third to take a 12-point lead into the fourth. 

Fort Hays opened the final frame on a 14-3 run to creep within three with 5:13 left after a bucket from Katie Wagner. 

Still trailing by three with, a UNK turnover led to a fastbreak opportunity for the Tigers, but Jaden Hobbs was called for a double-dribble while being flanked by a Loper. The Lopers capitalized with a 3-pointer by Elisa Backes on the other end to open up a six-point lead. 

"It was a double-dribble, but what they didn't call was somebody had a hold of her other arm; she had no choice really," Hobson said. "That was a key sequence."

FHSU got back within four with 1:37 left but could get no closer. The Tigers finished 38.5% from the floor (20-of-52). The shooting percentage was aided by a 9-of-14 showing in the fourth quarter. The Tigers made 3 of 15 3-pointers and went 8 of 16 from the foul line.  

"You can't make half your free throws and you can't shoot 3 for 15 (from 3)," Hobson said. "I thought those two areas were signs of fatigue maybe."

"I'm proud of our kids for not just packing it in and giving up, because I know they were tired, or course the other team's tired, too," Hobson added. "We hung in there and made a game out of it, and we'll move on and play next week."

The 22-3 Lopers, who avenged a pair of regular-season losses to the Tigers, will be headed for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years.  

"I think it was one of our better games defensively. We made them work for their shots," said UNK coach Carrie Eighmey, a former FHSU assistant from 2008-12. "Offensively we had some really good stretches but we also had a couple of lulls where we struggled to score. But they are a good defensive team too."

Wagner scored seven of 13 points in the fourth quarter.

"It's pretty special for a freshman to kind of fuel the comeback," Hobson said. "She had a really good game. A game that is physical like that doesn't bother her as much as does some of our kids, because that's just the way she plays."

Hobbs led the Tigers with 14 points, but struggled shooting, going 5 of 13 from the field and 1 of 7 from 3. Whitney Randall, the Tigers leading scorer at 15.3 points per game, was held to five points on 2 of 10 shooting. 

"Jaden and Whitney, everybody's going to key on them," Hobson said. "And when you have a good defensive team that's pretty deep and healthy at this time, they can kind of rotate people and make it real difficult for them to get open looks."

Sophomore guard Lauryn Reither played a season-high 22 minutes as the Tigers look to fill a void on the perimeter after losing Sydney Golladay and Cydney Bergmann to knee injuries. Reither also logged key minutes in the Tigers' 77-72 semifinal win Saturday over Emporia State. 

"She was solid today, took care of the ball, had no turnovers, had three steals," Hobson said of Reither. "I'm happy with what we're seeing out of her."

Brooke Carlson led Kearney with 18 points while Haley Simental added 14. 

Hobbs and Tiger freshman Olivia Hollenbeck earned spots on the all-tournament team. Carlson was named most outstanding player of the tournament and was joined on the team by UNK's Backes and Simental.