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Top stories 2013: Tiger newcomers come up big

By NICK McQUEEN

nmcqueen@dailynews.net

What was originally thought to be a rebuilding season turned into a regular season championship for the Fort Hays State University men's basketball team.

Returning just 10 points per game from the prior season, then 12th-year Tiger head coach Mark Johnson had 10 new players from a team that finished 19-9.

But, the Tigers followed the lead of newcomers Craig Nicholson and Dwayne Brunson, and what started a little rough turned into gold and numerous postseason accolades.

After the Tigers started 2-2 with two non-conference losses, FHSU rallied around Nicholson, the Freshman of the Year, and MIAA first-team selection Brunson to a 19-7 regular-season mark (13-5 conference) and MIAA title. Johnson also was named the MIAA's top coach for the second time.

"We were going to get better as the year went on," Johnson said prior to the start of last year's conference tournament.

"These guys want to do well, and they work hard every day. Very rarely have we came to practice not prepared to practice. It's been a good group toward doing that."

Nicholson, who now averages 15.5 points and 8.1 assists for 8-2 Tigers, was the first Freshman of the Year award recipient in a conference for FHSU since Raymond Lee in the 1982-83 season. Nicholson averaged 7.2 assists, breaking the school mark of 6.6 previously held by a Lee.

Brunson, now a senior who averages 18.3 points and 9.2 boards per contest, paced FHSU with 15.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 55 blocks in his first transfer season from Barton Community College.

"Really unselfish team," Johnson said. "Worked hard every day, very coachable team, and I am glad that they were the group that got to be able to win the regular season championship."

The Tigers went on to finish 1-1 in the postseason conference tournament. They won their opener 79-60 against Missouri Southern State University, but lost 73-66 in the semifinals to Northwest Missouri State University, ending the Tigers' season at 20-8.

The sour loss, after leading by 12 midway through the second half, couldn't take away from what a fresh group of Tigers was able to accomplish. FHSU went 9-1 in its final 10 games.

Despite winning the regular season crown, though, FHSU was on the bubble and missed selection for the NCAA Division II tournament. The Tigers were not ranked in the top 10 in the region prior to the start of the MIAA tourney.

Carson Konrade (9.1 points) also was a key contributors to the Tiger offense and came back for another season to start 2013-14. Konrade averages 15.2 points and 4.4 rebounds this year. The trio leads a relatively new group of Tigers on pace for similar success.