Tigers get rested up for Central Regional

Rick Peterson Jr.
Hays Daily News
Fort Hays State women's basketball coach Tony Hobson directs his squad as Emma Ruddle heads up the court during last Saturday's MIAA Tournament semifinal against Emporia State. The Tigers will open regional play on Saturday in Warrensburg, Mo.
Fort Hays State's Whitney Randall looks to pass from the top of the key last Saturday against Emporia State.

At the end of last week's MIAA Tournament, Fort Hays State women's basketball coach Tony Hobson could tell his team was exhausted. 

The Tigers found themselves in hard-fought games in the semis and finals of the conference tournament, falling to Nebraska-Kearney 57-51 in the title game last Sunday in Hays. 

Fortunately for the Tigers (22-3), they'll have had nearly a full week to recover by the time they open the NCAA Division II Central Regional Tournament on Saturday in Warrensburg, Mo. 

“With us, a lot of (the preparation) is just recovery," Hobson said. "Our Saturday, Sunday games we stretched ourselves as far as we could go. If you watched some of our kids ... for instance Jaden Hobbs did not have an ounce of anything left after that Sunday game, because she went 40 minutes two days in a row in two high-level, big-time games. 

“We’ll just try to fine-tune some things and try to get our energy back and be ready to go.”

The top-seeded Tigers, along with No. 2-seeded Kearney, earned first-round byes, a major advantage in the six-team field. Fort Hays will await the winner of Friday's game against fourth-seeded Central Missouri and fifth-seeded St. Cloud State. FHSU's semifinal will be 5 p.m. Saturday at the UCM Multipurpose Building. 

“I think (the bye is) huge, especially for our team that’s a little bit thin now and playing several kids heavy minutes, not having to play Friday and turn around and play on Saturday,” Hobson said. “First of all, preparation. And second of all, just rest. … I think if any of the teams in this tournament had the choice, they would take the bye."

The Tigers have qualified for the regional in six of the last seven years. 

“I think as a coach, that’s what we all strive for — not just to have a good team every now and then, but have a program that’s always competitive,” Hobson said. “We just strive for consistency and we’ve been able to have that here. 

“It is much more difficult to stay at or near the top than it is to get there one time. You have to keep plugging away. There’s so many moving parts. A lot of things working together.”

It will be the Tigers' second straight trip to Warrensburg for the regional. The Tigers had already arrived in town last year when the tournament was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns. 

“I think we’ll be excited to make that trip to Warrensburg again," Hobson said. "Some of the kids have experienced it without getting to play a game. There’s a level of excitement I think. Certainly disappointed that we couldn’t finish the conference tournament with a win. 

“But it’s just one of those things. When you play in big games and you play tough teams all the time in those big games, there’s going to be times where you don’t come out on top. We just didn’t play well enough on that day to beat them.”

The Central Region was comprised of only teams from the MIAA and the Northern Sun (NSIC) this year. The NCAA Division II Management Council and Presidents Council adjusted regional alignments to balance the number of active teams in each regional while trying to maintain geographic proximity for the schools in the regional. 

UCM was selected last month as the pre-determined host site for the Central Regional.

The Jennies (19-4) were knocked off by Washburn in the first round of the MIAA Tournament. St. Cloud enters with a 12-5 mark, falling to Minnesota Duluth in the NSIC Tournament final. 

“Right now, I’m planning on playing on Central Missouri. We’ll have some things ready on St. Cloud also," Hobson said. "But No. 1, I think our conference is strong. No. 2, (the Jennies) are playing at home. No. 3, they’re hungry because they got upset first round of the conference tournament. We’ll be preparing for a lot of what they do. St. Cloud is also primarily an all man-to-man team. A lot of it will be carry over.”

The MIAA regular-season champion Tigers will also look to regroup mentally after seeing their 17-game winning streak snapped last Sunday.

“We’re a possession away from thinking we’re unbeatable, the greatest thing since sliced bread," Hobson said. "And now, a couple possessions don’t go right for you, a couple breaks and we don’t play great, and now we feel awful. That’s just how sports is.

“But we’re still a good team, and we’ll be ready to go come Saturday.”

Hobson said he thinks the MIAA Tournament offered good preparation for what to expect in the regional. 

“An MIAA Tournament championship is really meaningful, so the teams are really geared up, and it’s high intensity and usually good crowds," he said. "So I think it does a real good job of preparing our young kids for what’s coming up. 

“It’s going to seem really quiet and empty and everything else at the regional compared to what it was at the conference tournament. I think we’ll be fairly well prepared."

The Tigers will be looking for their first trip to the Elite Eight under Hobson. They were regional runners-up in 2019 and 2015. 

“I think we would like to take that next step,” Hobson said. “The prior two times we made the finals, they were both tight games and we were playing at home. First, you just have to win that first game and get to the finals, because anything can happen in one game. What I just tell them is ‘prepare yourself the best you can, and then when the time comes to play, you’ll be ready, and you just go out there and do your best. And if it’s good enough, it is. And if not, you go home.

"But the main thing is that you don’t just lose the game, somebody has to beat you."

On the other side of the bracket, Nebraska-Kearney, will await the winner of No. 3-seed Minnesota Duluth and Emporia State, which was on the tournament bubble but made it as the No. 6 seed. 

The regional title game will be played next Monday in Warrensburg. The regional winners will meet in Columbus, Ohio for the Elite Eight.