Top ranked Tigers tested by Sterling but remain unbeaten

By Randy Gonzales
Hays Daily News

Sterling almost spoiled the party for the Tiger women’s basketball team.

Fort Hays State University fought past Sterling 81-72 Tuesday night in Gross Memorial Coliseum to give Tiger coach Tony Hobson his 700th career victory. After the final buzzer, Hobson was honored at halfcourt while the Tiger bench held up a sign saying “700th win” in his honor.

After the game, Hobson was still in coaching mode.

“I don’t want to be on 700 for more than one game,” Hobson said. “I’m worried about 701.

Players from Sterling and Fort Hays watch a Sterling shot swish through the net in the first half of Tuesday night’s game at Gross Memorial Coliseum.

“It just means I’ve been involved with a lot of good players,” he added, saying assistant coach Talia Kahrs has also played a big part through the years. “You have to have a lot of things go right for a long time.”

The Tigers also climbed to the No. 1 spot in the national rankings before the game, the second time FHSU (5-0) has been atop the coaches’ poll in the NCAA Division II era.

Hobson said he thought his team might make the jump due to losses by schools ranked ahead of the Tigers.

“I think we have a chance to be that good,” Hobson said. “Right now, we’re not the best team in the country. But when we get a little healthier … we have an opportunity to be a really good team.”

Fort Hays could have used injured point guard Jaden Hobbs against Sterling’s full-court pressure defense. The senior All-American sprained her ankle in the second game of the season and has missed the last three contests. FHSU committed 16 turnovers Tuesday, leading to 20 points for the Warriors.

“We’re really susceptible to pressure right now because our point guard’s out,” Hobson said.

The Tigers were able to count on another big game from freshman guard Katie Wagner, who led the team with 23 points and 11 rebounds. Wagner is fourth in the MIAA in scoring and first in rebounding through the early part of the season.

“She’s so consistent,” Hobson said. “She’s not a great shooter, but she’s a pretty good maker from 15 (feet) in. She can get her shot off. She’s strong around the basket, goes after every rebound.”

Sterling (6-1), ranked No. 8 in the NAIA and which had won 36 of its last 37 games going back to last season, took a 17-14 lead after the first quarter on a 3-pointer at the buzzer by senior guard Emmiley Hendrixson. The Tigers responded with a 16-0 run to start the second quarter to lead 30-17, but the Warriors closed within five points at halftime, 40-35.

“We had a little run in the first half, got on them a little bit, just let them right back in it,” Hobson said. “Then I knew it was going to be a fight the rest of the game.”

It was still tight after three quarters, with the Tigers clinging to a 58-55 lead. Fort Hays started to use its height advantage in the closing minutes to make sure Sterling did not put a damper on the celebration. The Tigers went on a 10-0 run to take a 75-64 lead with 2:14 remaining in the game.

“We finally got the ball where it needed to go, take advantage of our inside game,” Hobson said. “We knuckled down there in the fourth quarter and pulled it out, made some good plays.”

Olivia Hollenbeck, The Tigers’ 6-foot-3 freshman forward, scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds against a Sterling starting five with no player taller than 5-10. Senior forward Whitney Randall added 18 points and sophomore guard Lauren West scored 11.

Sterling got a game-high 24 points from senior guard Bailey Albright, a returning All-American. The Warriors had four players score in double figures.

“Give them some credit,” Hobson said. “I thought they played very well. They’re tough and scrappy. They will be hard to get in the KCAC.”

FHSU is off until Wednesday, when the Tigers travel to Topeka to play Washburn in their MIAA opener.

“This was like a conference game,” Hobson said. “It was a good tuneup for MIAA.”