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Tigers in non-conference action

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Fort Hays State University men's basketball coach Mark Johnson believes there are four areas that allow teams to win close games: defensive stops, rebounds, don't turn the ball over and make free throws.

"It's not about making shots," Johnson said. "It's not about a guy going down and being a hero and making a great shot."

Last week, the Tigers lost two overtime road games to the University of Central Missouri, 93-85, and Missouri Western State University, 82-79, in the winter's first two MIAA games. FHSU tumbled out of the NCAA Division II top 25 and fell to 7-2, 0-2 MIAA.

"We are really close right now to being 9-0 and 2-0 and having one of the better weekends that we have had, going on the road and playing two very good teams and getting wins," Johnson said. "Instead, it's probably one of the most disappointing weekends that we have ever had. We are 0-2 and we have just got a challenging schedule ahead of us."

Coupled with a 97-90 overtime victory against Upper Iowa in the season's second contest, FHSU is 1-2 in overtime games this season. Johnson believes Fort Hays should have won all three contests in regulation. Fort Hays, which averages 71 possessions per game, plays a fast pace and doesn't have as many sets.

"I really felt like over most years, the last two minutes were the same way that we played for all 40," Johnson said. "It wasn't a different style. As you get in late in games, the game slows down. There is not as many possessions. Every possession is magnified."

On Saturday, Fort Hays steps out of MIAA play for a non-conference contest against NAIA Central Christian College in a 4 p.m. start at Gross Memorial Coliseum. Johnson said senior forward Dwayne Brunson is questionable for this weekend.

Brunson, the team's leading scorer at 18.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per contest, has been bothered by a knee injury the last two weeks and hasn't been able to practice. Johnson calls Brunson, a returning first team all-MIAA pick, the team's best player and arguably the conference's best player. Senior Jake Stoppel continues to come back from knee and ankle injuries.

"They don't ask you who was hurt and who was healthy," Johnson said. "They ask you at the end of the year how many games you have won and how many you have lost."

Johnson would prefer to play all conference games after the holiday break, just the Big 12, but realizes that's not possible with 19 MIAA games and 14 conference teams. Fort Hays closes the pre-holiday schedule Dec. 21 with a key home game against Northwest Missouri State University.

"We coulda, shoulda won those two games, and your team is still the same," Johnson said. "We wouldn't have played any better necessarily if we would have won those games. Obviously, we stumbled and now we can't stumble as we go forward, but there is a lot of time left. It is still first semester."

Against Central Missouri, Johnson believed the Mules "controlled" the game. FHSU trailed by 13 with 6 minutes, 21 seconds left in the first half before it took a three-point lead with 90 seconds remaining.

"It was one of those, I don't want to call it we should have stole the win, because we should have won in the last 30 seconds, but I think our guys did a lot of good things to be in that position," Johnson said.

The Tigers struggled with defensive stops, not rebounding and sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson went 1 of 4 on free throws in the final 17 seconds.

"In all these things, you've just got to change one chain of events and the whole thing goes a different direction," Johnson said.

Against Missouri Western, FHSU led by 64-57 with four minutes to play. The Tigers allowed 10 points in the final four minutes, a defensive showing that Johnson wasn't pleased with. Over 40 minutes, that's 100 points.

"We gave up two offensive rebounds in that stretch that led to five points for them, we missed two free throws in the last five minutes of the game and we had two turnovers," Johnson said. "There, we failed on all four things."