Two one-point home wins last week and a one-point road loss by Central Missouri Saturday have put the injury-riddled Northwest Missouri State men's basketball team back in the conference title hunt.
Alone in second place, the Bearcats (15-5, 8-3) trail Central Missouri (15-4, 9-2) by just a game for first place with seven remaining.
Northwest's next four games, all against Fort Hays State and No. 17 Washburn, are likely to determine whether they stay in the race for the long haul.
The first two of those are on the road, beginning with tonight's 7:30 p.m. affair with Fort Hays State at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
"These are two top teams, two tough places to play," said Northwest head coach Ben McCollum of Fort Hays State and Washburn. "We're going to have to be at our best to win these."
Northwest and Hays have split the season series each of the last two years. They'll meet again a week later at Bearcat Arena.
The Bearcats enter this matchup off a 52-51 win over Emporia State Saturday. They rallied from 20 down in the first half to beat Northeastern State 73-72 two nights before. Both victories came while junior center and current leading scorer Dillon Starzl sat out with an MCL sprain. He won't play tonight either.
The Tigers (13-6, 7-4) have won three straight and are one of four teams within a game of Northwest in the standings.
Fort Hays is 9-2 at home on the year and 2-0 on a current four-game homestand. The Tigers opened conference play with a 77-72 home win over Central Missouri, which until Saturday, hadn't been beaten again. Their four conference defeats are all to teams ranked in the top seven of the conference.
"I think they get up and down and really like to score," said McCollum. "They like to play loose and free. I don't know how many games they've been in where it's under 60 points both teams. That's what we want to keep it at. If we can keep the tempo down, we got a good shot."
The Tigers own the No. 2 scoring offense in the MIAA (76.8 ppg), while Northwest is No. 1 in scoring defense (60.2 ppg). Northwest just held Emporia State to its lowest point total of the year.
Hays can also defend at a high level, ranking first in the MIAA in field goal percentage defense, second in steals and first in block shots.
Offensively, four of Hays' five starters average between 13 and 15 points per game.
Junior forward Dwayne Brunson (6-7, 220) leads the Tigers in scoring (14.8 ppg), rebounding (7.9 rpg) and is the MIAA leader in block shots (2.1 bpg). Senior guard Lance Russell is second on the team in scoring (14.3 ppg) and rebounding (5.1 rpg).
Page 2 of 2 - Freshman point guard Craig Nicholson averages 13.4 points per game and is second in the nation in assists with 7.4 per game. He has twice been named the MIAA Player of the Week.
Redshirt senior Ben Conguista rounds out the scoring foursome with 13.2 points per game. Conguista leads the MIAA in three-pointers made with 51, one ahead of Northwest Missouri State senior Alex Sullivan.
Senior guard DeAngelo Hailey (13.2 ppg) and Sullivan (10.7 ppg) are Northwest's only healthy double-figure scorers. Over the last two games, Northwest has received enhanced scoring from sophomore forward Grant Cozad and freshman guard Connor Crooker.
Cozad has reached double-figures in each of his last three games, raising his season average to 7.8 ppg.
Crooker had a career-high 24 in the win over Northeastern State.