By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
With Monday night’s thrilling 68-66 victory at Emporia State, Missouri Southern avenged two regular-season losses to the Hornets.
The ninth-seeded Lions can accomplish three seasons of payback today at noon when they battle top-seeded Fort Hays State in the opening quarterfinal game of the men’s MIAA Postseason Tournament at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium.
The Tigers beat the Lions 83-69 at home just over a month ago. In addition, the Tigers have ousted Missouri Southern in the MIAA Tournament the last two years — 89-83 in the 2011 championship game and 103-102 in overtime one year ago.
After losing three of four games in a two-week stretch in January, the Tigers won nine of their last 10 games to tie Central Missouri for the regular-season championship. The Tigers earned the No. 1 seed by beating the Mules 77-72 on Dec. 5 in their conference opener.
“Hays is a good basketball team,” Lions coach Robert Corn said. “The first time we played them I thought they were the best team we had played up to that point, and they went on to finish off a great conference season.”
In past years the tournament’s No. 1 seed usually has secured a regional tournament berth, but the Tigers still have work to do. They were ninth in the Central Region on Feb. 28, but they are not in the top 10 this week despite victories over Missouri Western 73-57 and Lincoln 87-53 last week.
Missouri Southern, the No. 9 seed, has only one road to reach its third consecutive NCAA Tournament — earn the automatic bid awarded to the tournament winner.
The Tigers, directed by MIAA coach of the year Mark Johnson, average 76.5 points, 11.5 more than their opponents. Dwayne Brunson, 6-foot-7 junior, was first team all-conference and averages 15.5 points to lead four players in double figures. Lance Russell, 6-5 senior, and Craig Nicholson, 5-8 freshman, are just below 14 points. Nicholson, the league freshman of the year, ranks second nationally at 7.0 assists per game.
“They are playing with a lot of confidence,” Corn said. “They have guys who can shoot from the perimeter and guys who can hurt you inside. You can’t take off any defensive possessions. They can hurt you from both aspects.”
With the Tigers starting 7-footer Rundell Mauge in the middle, the Lions once again will face a big size disadvantage. Their chances against Emporia State improved a bunch when the Hornets’ 6-11 Paul Bunch picked up his fourth foul in the opening seconds of the second half.
The Lions finished with a 31-26 rebounding advantage and 9-2 edge in second-chance points, but 16 turnovers were converted into 19 ESU points.
“We have to play with toughness, and we can’t self destruct,” Corn said. “That’s the big thing. If we’re right there knocking on the door, we can’t have two or three straight turnovers and let them convert them into points. You’re two to four points down, then all of a sudden you’re down 10 to 12 points, and it’s hard to overcome that.”
The Lions, who average 73.2 points and allow 72.6, received 16 points from Jordan Talbert, 15 plus 11 rebounds from Marquis Addison and 11 points from Stephen Atkinson against the Hornets. Atkinson will make his second straight start as Blaine Miller continues to be slowed by back problems.
“We have to go up and play as hard as we can and execute as well as we can,” Corn said. “It comes down to execution and fundaments at this stage of the season. If you do those, you have a chance.”