By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
KANSAS CITY, Mo. —
Ben Congiusta, the MIAA’s most accurate long-range shooter, ignited Fort Hays State with perfect first-half shooting, and the top-seeded Tigers pulled away in the final seven minutes to beat Missouri Southern 79-60 Thursday afternoon in the MIAA Postseason Tournament at Municipal Auditorium.
Congiusta, 6-foot-2 senior, nailed four 3-pointers from around the top of the circle in a seven-minute span to turn an 11-6 deficit into a 23-16 lead with 7:45 left in the first half. Less than a minute later, he connected again from the left side with one foot on the 3-point arc.
“They are a good defensive team,” said Congiusta, who is hitting a league-high 43.8 percent from 3-point range. “I just tried to shoot it every time I was open. As a team, we did a good job finding each other open. Any open look, I just let it go and I was happy to see some go in.”
“Ben making shots early was a key,” Tigers coach Mark Johnson said. “You need to get off to a good start in the tournament. Ben made his first five shots, and when you do that, it relaxes not only him but it relaxes your whole team.”
The Tigers (20-7) stretched a 36-31 halftime lead to 47-34 just over five minutes into the second half.
But the Lions (13-15), with season scoring leader Marquis Addison on the bench with four fouls, outscored the Tigers 24-15 during the next seven minutes to climb within 62-58 with 7:20 left.
The Lions hit 9-of-10 field goals, including three treys, and scored on all but one possession during the comeback that saw eight points from Jordan Talbert, six from Austin Wright and Greg Renfroe and four from Cameron Cornelius.
But Carson Konrade connected for 3s from each corner in just over a minute to spark a 13-0 burst by the Tigers.
“It seemed like every time we made a push, they would hit a big shot,” Talbert said. “That’s what good teams do. They step in, knock down a 3, and it just killed our momentum. We tried to fight back, and we showed an awful lot of heart to try to make a push, but they would just stick a dagger in our heart every time.”
The Lions, meanwhile, did not score on eight straight trips, missing six shots, one free throw and committing three turnovers.
“The one thing I’ve talked about is we have to stay away from self-destructing,” Lions coach Robert Corn said. “I felt the whole second half, we self-destructed way too much. We had too many turnovers (10) and during that last seven minutes, we couldn’t make a basket and we had a couple of shots blocked. You could see our energy just going out. Somebody has to step up and make a play in order to get that energy back, and we weren’t able to have anyone step up and make a big play for us.”
Rundell Mauge, the Tigers’ 7-footer, made two of his four blocks during that time.
“It was pretty difficult, especially with our lack of size,” Talbert said. “Having the 7-footer in there, it’s hard to finish at the rim, so every time I went up, you’re either thinking about him or you see him. And it showed … we got a couple of easy looks at the basket but we couldn’t convert.
“It was exactly like Monday night at Emporia (against 6-11 Paul Bunch). We got (Mauge) into foul trouble in the first half, but we didn’t get him in foul trouble in the second half.”
Talbert, at 6-5, finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and a career-best seven blocked shots.
Addison scored nine of the Lions’ 11 points in the first five minutes and finished with 13 — all in the first half. He picked up his third and fourth fouls early in the second half and played only 11 minutes in the half.
“I’m getting used to it the last couple of games, being in foul trouble,” Addison said. “It was very frustrating to sit and watch from the bench. I felt helpless but our guys battled back. We got within four, and like Jordan said, they just stuck daggers in us and kept hitting big shot after big shot. Credit to them for that.”
R.J. Leverette also reached double figures with 10 points for the Lions and dished out five assists.
Guard Craig Nicholson, the league’s freshman of the year, had 19 points and seven assists to lead the Tigers. Congiusta, who scored off a back-door cut in the second half, finished with 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting. Konrade hit three treys while scoring 15, and Lance Russell had 12 — all in the second half.
Both teams shot just over 40 percent, but the Tigers had 17 more shot attempts and eight fewer turnovers. The Tigers outscored the Lions 19-7 in second-chance points and 20-12 in points off turnovers.