KEARNEY — Beating Fort Hays State looked like a tall task for the University of Nebraska Kearney men’s basketball team before the season began.
Coaches and media looked at the Lopers, riddled by transfer losses, and picked them last in the MIAA. Fort Hays State, meanwhile, was picked fourth.
Taming the Tigers looked even more challenging when Fort Hays State dashed to a 12-2 lead Tuesday night at the UNK Health and Sports Center. But then the Lopers threw some shade on their critics.
Going on a 23-4 run in the second half, a stretch where UNK scored on 11 straight possessions, the Lopers smashed Fort Hays State 74-60 in the first conference game for both teams.
“We’re making progress,” UNK coach Kevin Lofton said after the Lopers improved to 4-3. “I think our chemistry is pretty strong. Everybody seems to have the same thing in mind. We want to have as much success as possible, in other words getting many wins as we can. ... Egos are involved and that’s fun to be around.”
There was nothing fun about the way Tuesday’s game started. The Tigers knocked down three 3-pointers in the first 125 seconds and went in to lead by a dozen points in the first half.
UNK nibbled away, trimming the lead to three points by halftime. A 3-pointer by Jake Walker, a transfer from Snow Junior College, gave UNK its first lead, and launched the Lopers’ offensive outburst.
“We were particularly more active on the boards,” Lofton said. “We got a lot of mileage out of our three-quarter court press. I thought we did a good job defensively at times taking them out of what they wanted to do. ... We shot the ball well from the free- throw line, and Jake Walker was able to get it going a little bit, which was definitely helped us out.”
Walker, who led the Lopers with 20 points, hit another 3-pointer half a minute later and UNK was off on a 23-4 run over the next seven minutes..
Redshirt sophomore Noah Valasek netted four points in the run, as did Morgan Soucie. Valasek scored a season-high 11 points and Soucie, who had three fouls in seven minutes in the first half, scored all 16 of his points in the second half.
But it was AJ Jackson who threw gas on the fire. He scored nine of his 11 points in the outburst, banking home a 3-pointer from the top of the key as the shot clock expired to put the Lopers ahead 62-45.
“It helped getting Morgan back. I mean he gives us something in the paint and takes pressure off AJ as far as AJ getting in the paint,” Lofton said. “That helped a lot and then it helps when a 3-point shooter actually starts getting good looks and he makes it.”
Rebounding played a part, too. The Tigers grabbed one rebound during that run, even though they finished with a plus-2 advantage in the final count.
The Tigers Devin Davis led all rebounders with 10 and he completed a double-double with 15 points. Guard Jared Vitztum added 14 points.
UNK won despite losing point guard R.J. Pair early in the first half with back spasms, which ultimately led to extended playing time for Valasek, who had played eight minutes before going more than 20 minutes against the Tigers.
“I was really proud of the way they came through. The first half we were down and it looked like they may run away with it,” Lofton said. “We fought our way back into it. ... We came out and really we stuck together.
“I mean, it wasn’t one guy going nuts. We did it, I thought as a team, moving the ball. We got good shots. Guys that scored well for us, we got them the ball in the right places. And it was a gritty effort on the defensive end. So I think this is probably definitely our best half of the year.”
UNK 74, Fort Hays 60
Fort Hays (4-3, 0-1)
Jared Vitztum 5-10 3-4 14, Jake Hutchings 2-7 3-4 8, Devin Davis 5-12 5-9 15, Aaron Nicholson 0-2 0-0 0, Nyjee Wright 3-6 2-2 10, Perry Carroll 01 0-0 0, Gilbert Peters 0-1 0-0 0, Calvin Harrington 0-4 0-0 0, Alvin Thompson 4-5 1-1 11, Jackson Miller 1-1 0-1 2. Total 21-50 14-21 60.
Nebraska-Kearney (4-3, 1-1)
AJ Jackson 4-7 2-3 11, Morgan Soucie 7-12 2-3 16, Kyle Juhl 0-2 0-0 0, R.J. Pair 1-2 0-0 2, Jake Walker 7-12, 2-2 20, Cedric Johnson 1-4 2-3 4, Austin Luger 0-0 0-0 0, Chase Winchester 2-5 0-0 5, Winston Cook 1-3 2-2 5, Noah Valasek 4-4 2-2 11, Sam Morris 0-0 0-0 0. Total 27-51 12-15 74.
Halftime — Fort Hays State 32, UNK 29.
3-pointers — FHS 4-13 (Wright 2-3, Vitztum 1-2, Hutchings 1-2, Harrington 0-2, Davis 0-1, Nicholson 0-1, Carroll 0-1, Thompson 0-1), UNK 8-19 (Walker 4-9, Winchester 1-3, Cook 1-2, AJ Jackson 1-1, Valasek 1-1, Juhl 0-2, Soucie 0-1). Rebounds — FHS 31 (Davis 10), UNk 29 (Jackson 7). Total fouls — FHS 18, UNK 17. Fouled out — None. Technical fouls — Davis. Assists — FHS 12 (Davis 6), UNK 16 (Jackson 3, Johnson 3). Turnovers — FHS 12, UNK 9. Steals — FHS 6, UNK 5. Att — 1,015.