By SEAN McCARRELL
(HAYS, Kan., digitalBURG) — The Mules battled hard a long way from home Wednesday night, but in the end came up short against the Tigers of Fort Hays State, 77-72.
A fast-paced and entertaining first half began with each team shooting lights out from the field. The teams traded three pointers early in the game, and swapped leads throughout the night. Early in the game, UCM guard Charles Hammork went down hard, hitting his head on the floor and had to come out of the game. However, Hammork was examined on the sideline and allowed to return to the game.
Hammork played a large part in the game upon his return, including sinking a 19-foot jumper at the first-half buzzer to pull the Mules to within four, 37-33. In the first half, the Mules shot 13/27 (48 percent) from the field, compared to Fort Hays’ 15/33 (45 percent). The four-point game at halftime set the scene for an intense and well-played second half.
In the second half, the Mules mixed their defenses, including playing zone at times. Two key post players for Fort Hays State, Rundell Mauge and Dwayne Brunson, each committed their third fouls early in the half and had to sit for an extended period.
For the Mules offensively, the second half belonged to Reggie Stallings. With his team trailing by as many as eight, Stallings hit back-to-back threes to cap off a 9-2 UCM run, and put the Mules ahead 51-49 when the Tigers called timeout with 11:11 to play in the game.
Stallings was far from finished, as he continued to hit big shots for UCM. He hit a three to give his team a 56-54 lead and another to tie the game at 62 after Fort Hays was able to regain control.
The next UCM possession, with his team down by two, Stallings hit his fifth three pointer of the half to put his team ahead 65-64.
“We hit some big shots,” said Mules head coach Kim Anderson. “But I feel like we took a few too many threes.”
After Stallings put UCM ahead by one, the Tigers went on an 11-4 run, led by their deadly guard combination of Craig Nicholson and Ben Congiusta. Nicholson and Congiusta combined for 36 points on the night, including critical free throws down the stretch.
“(We) tip our cap to them, they are a good team,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to get better at guarding. We couldn’t guard (Congiusta).”
With the Tigers ahead 75-69 and 17 seconds left in the game, Reggie Stallings rattled home an eye-opening sixth three of the night, making it a three-point game. Then, with the Mules pressuring in an attempt to regain possession, Charles Hammork stole the Fort Hays State inbound pass and alertly called timeout, giving UCM the ball with 12.4 seconds to play.
A Mules turnover gave the ball back to Fort Hays State, and UCM was not able to get off a shot to tie the game. The Tigers held on for the 77-72 win.
“I’m proud of my guys,” Anderson said. “We played hard. I don’t like to lose, but I am pleased with the effort.”
In a game that saw eight ties and 14 lead changes, Reggie Stallings led the Mules in scoring with 19, 18 of which came from behind the arc. Three other Mules finished in double-figures, including Dominique Long and Charles Hammork, who each finished with 13, and Widgett Washington who chipped in 12.
The Mules (4-2, 0-1 MIAA) will open the home slate of the MIAA schedule Saturday at the UCM Multipurpose Building against the Hornets of Emporia State at 3:30 p.m. Looking ahead to the game with Emporia State, Anderson urged the Mules faithful to attend the game.
“We need a good crowd. We need a loud crowd,” he said.
UCM looks to bounce back from its third consecutive loss to Fort Hays State in Hays, and avoid an 0-2 start in the MIAA.