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Lehman making case for MIAA's best

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Fort Hays State University junior center Kate Lehman smiled and laughed when asked if she was the MIAA's best player this winter.

"That's a loaded question," Lehman said. "I feel guilty answering it."

Lehman does believe she and University of Central Missouri senior Keuna Flax are the two leading contenders.

By statistics, Lehman said she is "probably" MIAA's Player of the Year. Flax, a returning honorable mention All-American, averages 20.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and shoots 56.4 percent from the field with 13 blocks.

The Jennies are 23-3, 17-2 in conference play, ranked No. 11 in NCAA Division II and just clinched their first outright MIAA title since the 1990-91 season.

Lehman averages 16.8 points and 11.4 rebounds with a nation-best 140 blocks. She also shoots 56.4 percent from the field.

FHSU finished the regular season 19-7, 12-7 MIAA and in fifth place.

"Flax is very good from Central Missouri, and she is a senior," Lehman said. "...If you look at seniors and everything else, it will be her. Just because if I was a senior, I would want it to be like that."

Flax and Lehman could repeat as first team all-league selections, and Lehman could collect league Defensive Player of the Year honors for the second straight season. Awards should be released early this week. Lehman has the opportunity to become the first Tiger to win two first-team all-league awards since Shauna Porter won three in a row from 1997-2000.

However, FHSU coach Tony Hobson and Northeastern (Okla.) State University coach Randy Gipson believe Lehman could be the league's best player.

"To me, there is no doubt," Hobson said. "There is nobody in our league that influences both ends of the floor."

"You could sure make a strong argument," Gipson added.

Tonight, the Tigers and Lehman receive their next opportunity to continue a historic season in the first round of the MIAA postseason conference tournament. FHSU, receiving votes in the national poll and No. 10 in the Central Region rankings, faces No. 12 seed University of Nebraska-Kearney (10-16, 6-13 MIAA).

Fort Hays has won seven straight versus the rival Lopers, including two this year.

"We have to win Monday or it's all over, but from there, anything can happen," senior Katelyn Edwards said.

A victory would give Fort Hays its third straight 20-win season, a new school mark. Start time is 7 p.m. at Gross Memorial Coliseum. The winner faces No. 4 seeded Missouri Southern State University at 2:15 p.m. on Thursday from Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo.

Winning those two games puts the Tigers closer to an NCAA tournament berth. The winner of the conference tournament receives an automatic bid.

"We could possibly get a bid into regionals if we don't win out," Edwards said. "We still believe that we can win the conference tournament, and we have a lot of faith in ourselves."

Lehman, looking to become the first All-American in the Tigers' Division II era, has boosted her resume with the two Kearney games.

"What is great about our team is that the rest of her teammates enable her to be that," Hobson said. "They get her the ball. They guard off the screens, so she doesn't have to be out there chasing around and hedging and all that. She can set back in there and just eat them up."

In the first matchup, an 85-67 road victory on Feb. 4, Lehman collected a career-high 33 points, 13 rebounds and nine blocks. In the second one, an 81-53 home win on Feb. 22, Lehman had 26 points, 12 rebounds and nine blocks.

"Kate and I have had a great relationship on the basketball court," Edwards said. "We came here at the same time, and we have been here for three years together. Kate has just been an amazing player here. She is by far, one of the best, if not the best players I have ever played with my whole life."

Flax leads the MIAA in scoring, while Pittsburg State University junior Lizzy Jeronimus, a two-time honorable mention All-American, is second. Lehman stands third. She is 2.2 rebounds ahead of anyone else in the MIAA.

"Which is dominating," Hobson said.

Only Emporia State's forward Merissa Quick (76 blocks) is within 86 of Lehman. Flax, Lehman and Quick are tied for first in field goal percentage.

"When you are third in scoring, and lead the league in field goal percentage and you are the best defender, and the leading rebounder, please," Hobson said. "...To me, I would not trade Kate Lehman for anybody in our league. Whether she gets player of the year, I don't know. To me, she is better than anybody in the conference."