By RAEGAN NUEUELD
Photos by LOREN McQUEENY
After winning their quarterfinal games by a combined seven points, Fort Hays State University and St. Cloud State University would be in for another tight race Saturday in the semifinals of the NCAA Division II Central Region Tournament.
After six lead changes and five ties, the No. 1 seed Tigers narrowly beat the fifth-seeded Huskies, 59-55.
Fort Hays is now 4-0 in all-time meetings with St. Cloud. The last matchup between the two teams was the first game of the season for the Huskies on Nov.19. The Tigers won that meeting, 58-51.
“I knew what they had,” FHSU head coach Tony Hobson said. “They’ve been stellar all year. They have a lot of experience, they execute to death, and if you aren’t really sound on defense, you get exposed very quickly. I thought defensively that to hold them to 55 points was exceptional. It was just a good game by our kids. This is about the sixth game in a row where we’ve gritted it out and won down the stretch.”
“What a battle,” said St. Cloud head coach Lori Fish. “That was a tremendous basketball game. I enjoyed the whole process of it. I thought it was two great teams going out there and competing as hard as they could. I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve accomplished. Fort Hays is a great basketball team, and I thought we came out here tonight and competed and left it out on the floor.”
Neither team had much control throughout the first half in a back-and-forth battle, but Fort Hays managed to lead by two at the break. A 10-2 run during the third quarter allowed the Tigers to build a 10-point lead, but the Huskies didn’t quit and got the deficit down to six to start the final 10 minutes. They even outscored Fort Hays 18-16 in the last quarter, but it wasn’t enough.
After a St. Cloud 3-pointer left the Tigers trailing by one with a minute to play, Lauren West answered with a 3-pointer of her own, and also her first points of the game.
She even knocked down a second 3, making the score 57-52. The Huskies still kept it interesting with yet another 3-pointer.
But when Fort Hays got the ball back and was sent to the free-throw line, Katie Wagner made both shots to put the game out of reach.
“I wasn’t necessarily making shots at the beginning. But once I made the first one, I knew the second one was going in,” West said. “I got the ball with 10 seconds left, and they were laying off of me so I shot it.”
West finished the game with six points, as did Whitney Randall. Just ahead of them were Cydney Bergmann, who had eight, and Jaden Hobbs, who had nine. Leading the Tigers were Katie Wagner with 12 points, six rebounds and six steals. Olivia Hollenbeck had 13 points and six rebounds.
For the Huskies, three players led with double-digit scoring. Morgan Draheim had 14, Nikki Kilboten had 12, as well as nine rebounds, and Tori Wortz had 10.
One of the key aspects of the game for Fort Hays – as it has been for a while — was its defense. The Tigers scored 15 points off 15 forced turnovers and 13 steals.
“We didn’t double-down as much as we have in the past. Other than (Kilboten), everybody else on the team shoots 3’s and we had to cover that up,” Hobson said. “We just couldn’t afford to get too packed in there because they’re good at kicking out and shooting. We were trying to pressure (Brehna Evans), not let her have it and make her work really hard. Unfortunately, she never gets tired, but I still think that wears on someone. We did a good job. She was 1 for 10, and she’s a good player, so to hold her down was the key.”
“I thought they did a great job pressuring us,” Fish said. “They got us out of rhythm early, but then we made some adjustments and we did some things better. They’re a great basketball team. They’ve got a lot of length, they’re quick, athletic, and they can cause problems. They can also close out really quick, and it’s hard to get a shot off. I thought for the most part that on both ends it was a defensive battle.”
As Hobson noted, the last six games have ended with Fort Hays pulling away with the win late. The Tigers improved to 16-2 in games decided by single digits this season.
“I think our team has a lot of different weapons, and that’s something we use to our advantage,” Hollenbeck said. “I think we do a good job of playing team basketball. Everyone averages six to 12 points, so we definitely share the ball well and use that to our advantage.”
“You never know when your moment’s going to be, so you just have to be ready for it,” Hobson said. “(Friday) night, (Hollenbeck and West) either didn’t get to play much or didn’t get much done. They showed up ready to play today and did it. That’s what a team’s about.”
Fort Hays’ overall record is now 30-3, making this the fourth 30-win season in the program’s history. The Tigers will take on Missouri Western for the regional championship and a spot in the Elite 8 at 7 p.m. Monday. The game will be broadcast on the MIAA Network, with continued coverage from Tiger Media Network.