BY RAEGAN NEUFELD
PHOTOS BY LOREN McQUEENY
The Fort Hays men’s basketball team (23-5, 17-5 MIAA) took on the Lions of Missouri Southern on Friday in their first game of the conference tournament. The Tigers had faced the Lions only once in the regular season, beating them 89-71. Under the lights of Municipal Auditorium and the pressure of the postseason, Fort Hays bested the Lions again by a score of 71-55.
This year marks the first time since the 2018-19 season that Fort Hays has competed in the MIAA Tournament. That year the team finished fourth in the conference, but did not make it past the quarterfinals in the tournament. In the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, the team was unable to clinch a spot in the tournament due to tiebreaker situations. This season Fort Hays finished third in the MIAA and came into the postseason with improved records of 22-5 overall and 17-5 in conference play.
“I think you come in knowing that in a tournament with this many good teams, anything can happen, but we’re definitely a confident team,” said Head Coach Mark Johnson. “We feel like we’re playing as good as anybody.”
After a cold start for both teams in the first three minutes of the game, Missouri Southern took over and eventually built a 10-point lead. MSSU shot a clean 50% from the field during the first half, with all of their scoring coming from the first shot of the possession, as they scored zero second-chance points during the half.
However, the momentum changed for the Tigers with just under four minutes until halftime when they went on a 13-0 run to take the lead, 35-30. After that, Fort Hays never trailed and was able to keep the Lions at bay, resulting in the final score of 71-55.
“We had a hard time starting the game handling Stan Scott, the point guard. He’s just so long and athletic and we got off to a tough start. I think what really helped our guys is that we’ve experienced that before and our guys didn’t panic about our start,” Johnson said. “It felt like we were getting really good looks but just couldn’t make them, but our guys stayed the course and then we really started playing well. Jared [Vitztum] really got us going. He hit a couple shots and really carried us that first half.”
Coming off of his third first-team all-conference honor, Vitztum posted his 16th double-double of the season with 24 points and 16 rebounds. Kaleb Hammeke and Nyjee Wright were next for the Tigers, scoring 14 each. They also received all-conference honors, earning second-team and honorable mention respectively.
The next high scorer was Quinten Rock, who had eight points, all coming during key moments during the second half. As a team, Fort Hays ended with 45.5% field goal shooting, 37% from beyond the arc, and 73.3% from the free-throw line.
Up next for the Tigers is the number two seed Northwest Missouri State Bearcats. In earlier meetings this season, Fort Hays lost 74-60 and 57-49.
“Northwest is a great team, they’ve presented a lot of problems for us the last couple years,” Vitztum said. “We went down to their place and struggled the first half, thought we kind of figured some stuff out in the second half, so we’re just going to keep playing hard, play defense, and hopefully a few more shots fall.”
“I think we just have to come in with confidence knowing that we just played them, so we’re kind of ready for them already. We just need to be confident and start the game off the right way,” Wright said.
The semifinal matchup with the Bearcats is set for 8:15 p.m. on Saturday. The game will be broadcast on the MIAA Network, along with more coverage from Tiger Media Network.