BY RUSSELL HEITMANN
PHOTOS BY BRIAN GROTH
VIDEO BY LEXI GROSS
WARRENSBURG, Mo., – Coming to an end where last year’s NCAA tournament never got started, the Fort Hays State University women’s basketball team fell to Central Missouri in the Central Region semifinals, 72-68 on Saturday.
The Tigers were set to embark on their third straight postseason in March 2020, before COVID-19 forced an abrupt end to the year. A season later, FHSU navigated multiple postponements, injuries to a pair of day-one starters, and the cloud of COVID uncertainty on their way to a 20-2 regular season and the 12th league title in program history.
“I think this team of ours has been through more than any other team I’ve ever coached from beginning to end, starting last year at this thing getting canceled,” Hobson said. “For them to be in the position that they were in, which is winning the conference and being in the NCAA Tournament is just remarkable for what they had to deal with.”
FHSU (22-4) earned the number one seed in the central region, but came up against the Jennies (21-4) in the semifinals on UCM’s home floor. The NCAA predetermined all the regional sites due to COVID-19 protocols, and selected the Multipurpose Building on UCM’s campus as this year’s site.
The contest featured 13 lead changes; however, it was the Tigers who played from behind for the majority of the second half.
“I thought it was a battle – knew it would be – every time the last few years we’ve played these guys it’s been a game like that,” Hobson said. “I was pleased with the way we hung in there and kept battling back and didn’t go away easily and that is something that can happen when you’re playing an away game and not having some of the breaks go your way.”
FHSU took the lead, 63-62 on a Whitney Randall layup with 4:05 remaining but back-to-back layups by Graycen Holden and Olivia Nelson – bookending a Nelson steal – pushed the Jennies’ lead to 66-63. The Tigers never tied or re-took the lead after that.
Jaden Hobbs led FHSU early, with 16 first-half points; however, she was held to just three second-half points.
“Gigi [McAtee] did a great job on her [Hobbs],” UCM Head Coach, Dave Slifer said. “And she [Hobbs] is a player that is about as good as it gets.”
Hobbs, who played all 40 minutes for the third straight game for the Tigers, said taking on such a large minute-load is something she expects of herself, and has done so from a young age in order to help put her team in the best position to win. Hobbs credits UCM’s defensive pressure for making the second half more difficult.
“They just did a better job of getting a little bit closer to me and not letting me get as many open looks as I did in the first half, and credit them on that,” Hobbs said. “I just tried to do everything I could to get my teammates an open shot and try to sneak one in every chance I could.”
Hobbs finished with 19 points, six rebounds, three assists, and two steals.
The Tigers rode Hobbs in the first twenty minutes, as she hit back-to-back three-point shots midway through the second quarter to close a seven-point Jennie lead down to one.
In the second half, FHSU ran many possessions through Hobbs – a number of which ended in the senior guard creating her own look toward the end of the shot clock.
“The first half, Jaden dribbling the ball over the screens worked pretty well, so we were going to try some of those things again,” Hobson said. “But no we don’t want to do that all the time, but it was necessary tonight and that is what we were getting. They were locking up about everybody else. Sometimes you don’t have any other options.”
Much of the reason for Hobbs’ high workload was the late-season loss of junior guard Cydney Bergmann and freshman guard Sydney Golladay to knee injuries. With so many ball handlers unable to play, Hobson said Hobbs became the Tigers’ only option.
“You have to remember we’ve had to change some things because we have taken some starters out of our lineup,” Hobson said. “A little less ball-handling, so a lot of times our only option as a ball-handler is Jaden.”
Injuries have plagued the Tigers in the postseason their last two trips as a one seed. In 2019, starting point guard Carly Heim missed the second half of the season after suffering a knee injury and All-MIAA forward Lanie Page dealt with a foot injury that slowed her down in the later stages of the 2018-19 season.
“What I feel snakebitten about is getting people hurt. Every year I have a team I think that if we’re playing well no one can beat us and we’ve had a few of them in the last several years,” Hobson said. “We have a good bench, we have people I can put in there and start and everything just gets thinner. And these guys stepped up and battled the best they could. We still found a way to win the conference, made it to the [MIAA] tournament finals and got here.
“You have to be a little lucky, you have to keep healthy to win stuff at the end of the year a lot of times.”
Although the 2020-21 campaign ended in a loss, the future is bright for FHSU, as freshmen Katie Wagner and Jessie Sallach joined Hobbs in double figures with 13 and 10 points respectively. The Tigers started two freshmen for the majority of the year, and saw major contributions from their underclassmen.
FHSU could also see the return of Hobbs and fellow senior Whitney Randall due to the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to all athletes this season. Senior guard Madison Mittie celebrated senior night earlier this year and is not expected to return, but FHSU could see the rest of their team back.
With a season of so much uncertainty, Hobson knows his team rose above the mental challenges. He said as a coach, it has been a mental battle for him, so he knows his players have dealt with it, too.
“These kids have been put to the test mentally because of this and I think they came out pretty well,” Hobson said.