BY RAEGAN NEUFELD
PHOTOS BY LOREN McQUEENY
The Fort Hays women’s basketball team (26-3, 19-3 MIAA) capped off a successful regular season by winning a share of the conference title, as well as reaching 20 or more wins for the 11th year in a row. They also had five players receive all-conference honors, more than any other school.
Now in the postseason, the MIAA Tournament began for No. 2 Fort Hays on Thursday with a matchup against the No. 7 Central Oklahoma Bronchos. UCO entered the game coming off of a dominant 88-53 win against Emporia State in the first round of the tournament.
Previously this season, Fort Hays bested the Bronchos 78-71 and 75-68. In the highly competitive environment of Municipal Auditorium, the Tigers were again able to come out on top, this time 71-63.
“We knew it would be a tough game for a two-seven match. After seeing what they did to Emporia State yesterday we knew we would be in for a battle. Both times we beat them this year before were tight games,” Head Coach Tony Hobson said.
It was a tight race for the entire first half with Fort Hays only leading once, 7-6 for 17 seconds. A strong run to begin the third quarter allowed the Tigers to take over the lead, and even increase the margin to as much as 11. The Bronchos closed the gap to four with 10 minutes left to play, but Fort Hays outscored Central Oklahoma 22-18 to finish the game.
“At halftime, we just talked about focusing on defense and getting stops when we needed to, but also going down and executing on offense and scoring when we needed to,” said senior guard Jaden Hobbs. “I think we did a good job at that.”
“I think it started with defense, so we wanted to focus on doubling down more on Kelsey [Johnson], and really just work on our defense to get steals and stops, and then push our offense,” added fellow senior Whitney Randall.
Central Oklahoma’s senior forward Kelsey Johnson proved to be the biggest problem for the Tigers, scoring 15 points in the first half and 14 in the second for a game high 29.
“They try to go in there every time,” Hobson said. “You can’t totally stop her [Johnson], but I thought we caused a lot of turnovers in the second half from them trying to go in. We doubled a couple of times, but still she’s just a really good player, you’re not going to stop her. We were definitely trying to limit what she could do. I’m not sure we did a very good job at that, but otherwise, our defense was really stingy.”
The only other player for the Bronchos that scored in double digits was Brooke Rayner who had 14. Fort Hays forced 14 turnovers overall.
FHSU also had a more balanced attack, led by Randall with 17 points and Hobbs who had 15. All but two of her points were scored in the second half. Lauren West followed Randall and Hobbs with nine points.
Like the game, the ending stats for both teams were neck-and-neck. Fort Hays came out on top in all of the categories as well, shooting 40.7 percent from the field, 28.6 percent from beyond the arc, and a resounding 88.5 percent from the free throw line.
“We’ve had seven different leading scorers throughout the season,” Hobson said. “I don’t think anybody else has that. If one person is off a little bit, usually someone picks us up. We had some timely baskets from some key people. Emma Ruddle played eight, nine minutes and hit a big three from the corner. Whitney had a big and-one, Jaden had a pull-up shot, it seemed like we got it from different people when we needed it. Katie Wagner didn’t score the first half, but the second she started with two or three good baskets. That’s been our story. We don’t win any stats games, we just have a team.”
Fort Hays will now move on to the semifinals of the tournament, and will take on the winner of Nebraska-Kearney and Northwest Missouri. The game will start at 2:15 on Saturday and will be broadcast on the MIAA Network, with more coverage coming from Tiger Media Network.