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Hot-shooting Bearcats hold off Tigers

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

The Northwest Missouri State University men's basketball team was ranked No. 2 in the preseason conference poll behind Fort Hays State University. The Bearcats have five seniors from a squad that won the MIAA two years ago and went 21-10 last winter without point guard DeShaun Cooper. A three-time all-MIAA selection, Cooper is back after he missed last year with an injury.

In the first half, the Bearcats hit 10 of 14 3-pointers. Fort Hays trailed by 17 at intermission and closed to within five after the break, but eventually lost 88-74 on Saturday at Gross Memorial Coliseum. Cooper finished with 26 points, including six treys.

"They are a very good team," FHSU coach Mark Johnson said. "I felt like we caught a very good team on a great night. They played fantastic."

In the final game before holiday break, Fort Hays dropped to 8-3, 0-3 MIAA and ended its 11-game home winning streak. Northwest Missouri improved to 8-4, 3-0 MIAA.

FHSU has its worst league start since 2006-07, the program's first season in the MIAA. However, FHSU went 19-11 after a 1-3 start in '07-08, and 20-9 following a 1-3 start in '08-09.

Johnson said the lone difference between this year's team and last season's MIAA championship squad was FHSU started 4-4 in league play with two overtime road wins. This season, Fort Hays has two overtime road losses.

"We have dug ourselves a big hole," Johnson said. "But I felt like we have played an extremely difficult conference schedule to this part."

The Bearcats finished at 52 percent from the field, including 13 of 20 from long range, and held a plus-14 edge on the glass.

"They are a lot of older guys, they have been in the program for a couple of years," senior guard Carson Konrade said. "They know how the league works, and they are a really physical team."

Fort Hays shot 55 percent in the first half and 52 percent for the game, but had nine turnovers in the first half. Senior Dwayne Brunson finished with a team-high 19 points, but, bothered by his balky knee, collected just three rebounds.

Northwest Missouri had a big size advantage and had four players in double figures, including 14 points and seven rebounds from junior forward Grant Cozad and 11 points and seven rebounds from senior forward Dillon Starzl.

"We are not overly athletic, and we are not overly big," Johnson said. "That's a bad combination at times, and we are finding that out right now once we get into league play. Our lack of athleticism and lack of bigger bodies is hurting us."

In the first half, Konrade called the offense "passive," a sentiment Johnson agreed with.

"We were unsure of ourselves, unaggressive and unconfident in the first half," Johnson said.

Northwest Missouri, shooting 41 percent from long range this season, hit some difficult shots. Fort Hays played man-to-man, but went to zone and Northwest Missouri had some open looks.

"They kind of surprised us a little with how well they shot it in the first half," Konrade said. "I think we played fairly good defense. There were a couple of breakdowns a couple of times, but overall, they just hit some tough shots. Sometimes, that's just how it is. It just falls for one team and not the other."

Fort Hays, paced by 17 points and 10 assists from sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson, tallied the first six points in the second half and closed to 58-53 at the 10:43 mark.

"In the first half, we weren't tough enough," Johnson said. "In the second half, we did display that. We just kind of dug ourselves too big of a hole. But even saying that, we don't execute to the level that you have to execute. We have too many breakdowns."

Sophomore guard Connor Crooker bumped the lead back to seven with a pair of foul shots.

Later, Konrade moved the margin to five after a layup, but then Northwest Missouri quickly had a trey from senior Bryston Williams. Northwest Missouri continually answered, sometimes off of Tiger mistakes.

FHSU double teamed Starzl all game, but one time, the Tigers forgot to double team, fouled Starzl and he hit two free throws. Another time, one of the Tiger backside defenders battled Cozad for the rebound and Cozad grabbed it. Johnson said Fort Hays made similar errors in an 82-79 loss at Missouri Western State University on Dec. 7.

"You've got to have those late in games," Johnson said.