Kearney, Neb. – Four starters scored in double figures to help Nebraska-Kearney hold off longtime rival Fort Hays State, 84-80, Saturday evening at the Health & Sports Center.
The Lopers improve to 1-2 while the Tigers fall to 0-3. This marked the 134rd all-time meeting between the two programs.
UNK welcomed back three starters off the “COVID list” and that helped the Lopers the entire way and by as many as 21 points. Utah senior guard Jake Walker went for 20, Lincoln senior guard Sam Morris had 18 with New Zealand junior Matt Brien supplying 16 points. Finally, Utah junior Darrian Nebeker was at 12 points and a team-best seven rebounds.
“We feel good. We’ve been through a lot of adversity, not having three starters in the first two games and then having some guys in our top eight in quarantine for 10 days. We’ve been practicing short-handed (five to seven guys) and only had close to a full roster on Thursday,” UNK head coach Kevin Lofton said. “To have them come out and play the way they did in the first half … I was really pleased. Second half we started to struggle at around the 10-minute mark and they started to assert themselves.”
Still missing four players that all should return soon, UNK shot 61% (14 of 23) in the first half to open a 41-26 lead. That included a 4 of 9 effort from behind the arc and a 20-9 advantage in points in the paint.
“Having the three starters back was huge. They are all seniors and good players so having them back is big,” Lofton said.
FHSU made several runs throughout the day to hang around but found itself down 59-38 at the 11:09 mark after a corner three by Brien. That bucket came after a Tiger turnover, one of 12 miscues on the day. However, that’s when Hays made its move thanks to the play of 6-7 senior Jared Vitzum.
A 2019 third-team All-MIAA pick, the forward was just 1 of 6 from the field in the first half but promptly scored 19 consecutive points for his team. That explosion began with a three at 12:02 and ended with two free throws at 6:54. Suddenly it was just a 63-54 Loper lead. Vitzum ended up with 29 points and a career-best 15 rebounds.
“Hats off to him (Vitzum). We did a great job on him in the first half … he came in averaging 18 points so we knew he was a really good player,” Lofton said. “He didn’t get many looks in the first half but second half you had a senior playing with urgency. He really stepped up for them.”
Hays threw on a full court press down the stretch that the Lopers handled for the most part. UNK finished 23 of 31 at the stripe and managed to inbound the ball with three seconds left after the Tigers got a three from guard Quinten Rock. Walker made one of two freebies to finish the game’s scoring; he was 10 of 13 at the line overall.
UNK ended the day with a minus five rebounding margin and a minus one turnover margin. However, the Lopers shot 54% (26 of 48) which included nine triples. Off the bench, Texas senior guard RJ Pair was big down the stretch and ended up at nine points, five assists and three boards while also drawing five fouls. Walker (six) led the team in that category.
“Darrian has done a real good job to this point. He had some key early baskets in the game, driving to the rim. That gave our offense a real shot in the arm,” Lofton said. “RJ has gotten a lot of minutes based on what’s going on. He’s really helped us out.”
Hays saw Vitzum go 8 of 9 in the second half to reach his double double. Rock (15) was the only other Tiger in double figures but redshirt freshman guard Kaleb Hammeke (nine points, five assists and seven fouls drawn) was solid before fouling out late.
UNK heads to Newman and Central Oklahoma next week. Both of those teams are 0-3.