BY CHRISTIAN PHILLIPS
Fort Hays State University is playing some of their best basketball of the season, as they took care of business against Central Oklahoma, 81-73 at Gross Memorial Coliseum on Saturday.
The Tigers extended their win streak to four and finally reached .500 on the season with an 11-11 overall record and 4-9 in MIAA play. Coach Mark Johnson’s team could ill-afford to lose another MIAA game and the stellar three-point shooting assisted the Tigers tremendously in the second half.
“Give our guys a lot of credit, two weeks ago we were buried and gone, and our guys have found a way to get themselves a chance to get back in the conference tournament,” said FHSU Head Coach, Mark Johnson. “We’ve won three in a row and have gotten back over five hundred.”
The aggressive defensive scheme by the Bronchos coming out of the second half posed no threat to the Tigers as they continued their strong performance from the field, although being out-matched height-wise at the guard position.
FHSU’s ability to shoot from the perimeter helped FHSU against UCO’s zone defense.
“Well what bailed us out in the second half was we made shots and shot them out of it and they couldn’t handle our ball screen offense,” Johnson said. “We wanted to get them in their man [coverage] as much as we could because of their length.”
Jared Vitzum led the Tigers in the scoring column with 22 points, completing his 36-minute outing 6-6 from the field, 4-4 from three and 6-7 from the line.
Three other Tigers went on to score in the double figures, as Aaron Nicholson (14 points), Nyjee Wright (12 points), and Alvin Thompson (16 points) contributed immensely on the offensive side of the ball.
“I mean obviously Jared has been consistent with what he’s doing and Aaron and Nyjee were good again tonight. I thought Alvin, especially in the first half, gave us a great punch as far as scoring, he ended up with 16.” Johnson said.
An underlying performance caught Mark Johnson’s eye the past few games and made a few surprising comments about a player that even though he had an off night, has made a large impact on the team.
“I sit here and look at Calvin [Harrington’s] numbers and you’re like gosh the guy only has four points, three rebounds, four turnovers and statistically that’s not a very good night at all,” Johnson said. “But I really feel like he’s given us a boost, he got an important rebound late, he just gives us more length, he’s a really good ball mover. I feel like our basketball IQ gets better with him out on the floor, so his stats weren’t great tonight, but I feel like we are playing better with him.”
Fort Hays State went on to finish 25-42 from the field at 59.5 percent and most vital to the outcome was their 12 for 21 performance from three-point range at 57.1 percent.
Although the Tigers had a porous performance from the line with under three minutes to go, the Bronchos were still unable to cut the Tigers lead. When asked about the overall performance by the Tigers, Mark Johnson was pleased with what he saw against UCO.
“Quite honestly this was probably our best game of the year; we shot it well, we moved the ball well and overall we got good shots,” Johnson said. “I mean the only negative thing that we did on the offensive end was probably a couple of turnovers. At halftime, we had seven, but I think we did a good job in the second half until the very end.”
Down the stretch of the second half, the Tigers struggled to extend the lead at the line and allowed the Bronchos to stay within striking distance. Central Oklahoma’s pressure on the inbound pass stalled out the Tigers offense completely, but FHSU also had ample opportunities at the line but failed to convert.
“I mean it would have been a shame to blow this performance late, but we kind of got tied at the foul line,” Johnson said. “It’s hard for our guys to get open against their size and athleticism. I mean this league is scary, that team right there is 4-11 in the league. It is unbelievable as to how well you have to play every night and expect to win a game in this conference.”
It doesn’t get any easier for the Tigers as they hit the road in the MIAA. Johnson discussed how essential these next road games are for the Tigers in order to stay alive in conference play.
“Now we’ve got ourselves back in it to give ourselves a chance and now we have to push through,” he said. “We have to find a way to win on the road, we have four of our last six on the road and we are probably gonna have to win at least one, maybe more. That’s if we take care of business at home. We can’t get shut out over the next four road games.”
Fort Hays State Men’s basketball will be back in action on February 13th, at 7:30 pm at Central Missouri.