BY RAEGAN NEUFELD
PHOTOS BY LOREN McQUEENY
The Fort Hays State University Tigers and Nebraska-Kearney Lopers met for the third time this season on Saturday in the semifinals of the MIAA postseason tournament. The teams split the season series with UNK winning the first matchup 61-56 in Hays and Fort Hays winning the second 76-63 in Kearney.
FHSU is now 2-1 against UNK this season after winning Saturday 56-46 to advance to the MIAA Tournament Championship Game for the second season in a row.
The game was the 100th all-time meeting between the two teams in what has recently been an even series. The Tigers have now won seven of the last 11 games against UNK.
“You never want to close the book on the series because you might get them again,” said Head Coach Tony Hobson. “We have a lot of Nebraska kids and one of, if not their best player is from Salina. Last year we were first and second in the league, this year we were first and third. It’s become a much bigger rivalry since they’ve improved the last few years. I don’t know if I look forward to it but it’s always a competitive game.”
The crowd was a testament to the competitive nature of the game. Despite Fort Hays and UNK being four and five hours away from Kansas City, 1,374 fans made the trip to Municipal Auditorium.
The Lopers jumped on top to start the game, narrowly leading 17-14 after the first quarter. However, the Tigers started the second quarter by going on a 14-0 run and never trailed again. UNK did cut the lead down to three at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but Fort Hays was able to pull away and win by 10.
“That’s about what I expected,” Hobson said. “One or the other of us always gets a little bit of a cushion in the second half and then gives it up to the other team. We kind of let them back in it today, the last time we were at their place they let us back in it, so that’s just indicative of two teams that compete and don’t give up.
“We knew it would be a tough game, and I thought our kids really gritted it out, made a couple of big shots at big times, and did enough to win the game.”
Senior forward Whitney Randall led the Tigers in scoring with a game-high 20 points. Fort Hays’ first seven points of both the first and second halves were scored by Randall. For the game she went 7-12 from the field, 3-4 on three-pointers, and 3-4 on free throws.
Jaden Hobbs and Lauren West followed with ten points each, and Olivia Hollenbeck and Katie Wagner chipped in eight points a piece. Wagner also pulled down 11 rebounds.
According to Randall and Wagner, the key to moving forward in the tournament is staying “calm, cool, and collected.”
“[Hobson] kept telling us to settle down when [Hollenbeck] got her [third] foul and they shot free throws, but we were still up, so it was just keeping our heads on our shoulders, knowing we were still ahead. We knew that we needed to get stops and it would create some offense,” Randall said.
“That’s kind of been our story this season, is going on runs and then giving up runs, but we just have to stay calm and be in it at the end of the game to be able to get the win. I’m just glad we get to play tomorrow,” added Wagner.
Fort Hays will face the tournament’s number one seed Missouri Southern in the championship game. The Tigers only faced the Lions once during the regular season, losing 54-41. Lacy Stokes of Missouri Southern will be the biggest threat Fort Hays faces. The guard, who is a true freshman, was the MIAA Player of the Week four times during the regular season, was named Freshman of the Year, Player of the Year, and scored 32 points in the semifinal game against Missouri Western.
“They’re a good team. I think the last time they got beat was early January. We’re facing a hot team that’s really confident,” Hobson said. “They’ve got the most valuable player in the conference. She creates her own shots and she likes the moment. They just have a really good team. We’re going to have to be a little more intelligent defensively at times. We’ll have to guard them differently than we did Kearney.”
The championship game will be played at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoon in the Municipal Auditorium. A live broadcast will be streamed on the MIAA Network, and TMN will have coverage of the game as well.