BY RAEGAN NEUFELD
PHOTOS BY LOREN McQUEENY
The Fort Hays men’s basketball team fell short on Saturday night in the MIAA Tournament semifinals, losing to the Northwest Missouri State Bearcats 53-50. The game was the third matchup between the two teams this season, and also the third loss for the Tigers. Northwest has now won the last 14 games between the teams.
“It was the game that we figured it would be,” said Head Coach Mark Johnson. “Two teams that play hard and physical, was probably going to be a low-scoring game. We really played well the first half and until the very end. We just couldn’t make enough plays and they did. Trevor Hudgins showed why he’s Trevor.”
Northwest has won three out of the last four Division II national championships, but both teams came into the game with over 20 wins and only five losses on the season. The Bearcats were the tournament’s two seed while FHSU was seeded no. 3.
Fort Hays jumped on the Bearcats early, leading by 12 at one point, and took a six point lead into halftime, 29-23. Praised by Johnson for his defense, Gabe Pieschl was also crucial for the Tigers on the offensive end in the first half. He exceeded his season average of 4.3 points per game with two three-pointers within 3:10 of game action. Pieschl and another key to the Tigers defense and all-MIAA defensive team selection, Bjarni Jonsson, combined for 15 of Fort Hays’ 29 points at the half.
The Tigers held onto their lead throughout the second half, with Northwest coming as close as one point twice. Fort Hays never trailed until a 9-0 run by the Bearcats made the score 51-50 in the last two minutes. The Tigers were not able to score for the last eight minutes of the game and were overall outscored 30-21 in the second half.
Pieschl and Jonsson ended up with ten points each, and ahead of them was Nyjee Wright and Jared Vitztum both with 12. As a team, the Tigers shot 42.3% from the field and 30% from three-point range. The Tigers did not shoot any free throws.
“I’m disappointed for our guys. I wish I could’ve done more to help them. They laid it all on the line so it’s disappointing. How Fort Hays State didn’t shoot one free throw and they shot 20 is pretty amazing to me. Northwest deserved to win it, they made the plays. It was a physical, hard game, and our guys did everything they could,” Johnson said. “In my mind, it would be tragic for this team not to make the NCAA Tournament.”
Despite the loss, Fort Hays still held Northwest to 22 points below their season average.
“Fort Hays was phenomenal tonight,” said Bearcat Head Coach Ben McCullom. “I thought they had a great plan, I thought they punched us in the mouth to start. If they’re not an NCAA Tournament team I don’t know who is.”
Decisions on who makes the NCAA Regional Tournament will be announced on Sunday night.
After going 14-14 and 11-11 during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, the Tigers were much improved this year, going 23-6 overall and 17-5 in MIAA.
“Last couple of years were tough for sure,” Vitztum said. “I was pretty blessed to get this opportunity to come back and be with the guys, I really appreciate all of them. This one was fun.”