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Lions fend off Gorillas at John Lance Arena

Jan. 6—PITTSBURG, Kan. — Missouri Southern got off to a hot start Saturday inside John Lance Arena when it visited Pittsburg State for an MIAA clash.

The Lions were led by Darius Dawson's first-half explosion and Cam Williams took his turn in the second half as MSSU earned an 81-74 victory in the first meeting of a rivalry in the 2023-24 season.

"Credit to our guys. They just had great energy," MSSU head coach Sam McMahon said. "We call it championship energy. ... Yeah, it can catapult us. But at the same time we take it one game at a time."

Saturday's contest ended a 21-day layoff for the Lions. Their last game out was Dec. 16 when they played at Lincoln and lost 76-65.

Now Southern (5-8, 3-4 MIAA) looks to build off this win.

Dawson was feeling good in the first half as he scored. If he caught the basketball in the paint, most of the time it was going through the rim a few seconds later.

"Before the game, I was like, 'Darius, you go out there and play like the best player in the country because you can be that,'" McMahon said. "And he did that."

The junior transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College poured in 21 first-half points on 7 of 15 shooting. He finished with 25 for the game and shot 8 for 19 overall.

"(Dawson)'s so explosive and so strong. He can kind of get that angle. ... He does that all the time," McMahon added.

Williams was returning from a knee injury that caused him to miss the last two games before the holiday break. He scored 23 total and 18 in the second half.

The Lions led for all but about eight minutes of the game, but it wasn't an easy ride to the win.

The Gorillas (7-5, 3-3 MIAA) actually grabbed a late lead to make things interesting.

It was their third lead of the game as Marque English II made a layup with 5:50 left in the game to make it 63-62 in favor of PSU.

"This is a big rivalry game for us," English II said. "We knew it was going to be a good one with them, regardless of how everybody has played so far. We knew coming in it was going to be a dog fight so we just have to be more mentally strong throughout the game."

At that moment, it appeared the game could start to swing toward the Gorillas. MSSU's next possession saw two offensive rebounds and three shots that didn't fall. But Pitt State took it down court and missed. MSSU did the same. But PSU still couldn't stretch the lead.

The Lions got their lead back with 4:20 left on a tightly contested hook shot that went straight into the iron and through the net to make it 64-63. MSSU pushed ahead to 70-65 as Lawson Jenkins laid the ball up and in.

A timely first basket of the game for R.J. Forney was on a 3-pointer from the right wing that got the game back within 2 points at 70-68.

Speaking of timely triples, Vinson Sigmon Jr. hit his only outside shot on the next possession to give the Lions the necessary cushion with only 1:20 left to play.

English scored a layup but then Williams converted the old-fashioned 3-point play with a layup and a free throw to stretch the lead to 76-70. The Lions didn't let the Gorillas get any closer.

"It's huge. We got a bunch of kids that haven't been here but, me, I've been here. This is my fourth year here. ... This rivalry is still a thing. We still want to come here and beat them (PSU) as bad as we can," — said.

MSSU led 38-37 at the half and led for all but about two minutes of the 20.

The Gorillas never trailed by more than 6 points up until the final minute of the game when they were forced to foul.

Pittsburg State was able to grab the lead a couple times during the second half. The first instance came on a basket from Braydon Redd to make it 47-45.

Southern responded when Dawson drove to the basket and drew a foul to tie the game with two free shots.

Jeramy Shaw of PSU converted a layup to give the Gorillas a brief 49-47 lead. Then Williams showed off his bag of tricks with a turnaround jumper that he banked off the glass and in to tie the game for the Lions.

Sigmon Jr. added two free throws to give his team the lead back and then Jenkins made his first impact of the game. He quickly scored on the interior and then drilled a trey from straightaway to give some cushion with a 56-51 lead.

"I try to never get too high, never get too low and I just wanted to go in there and do whatever I could to help us win," Jenkins said.

English made two free throws between Sigmon Jr.'s and Jenkins' points.

Dawson showcased his ability to go get a bucket from virtually anywhere on the floor, including beyond the arc. The 6-foot-6 forward is now averaging 13.6 points per game. Coach McMahon talked about the importance of getting him more and more opportunities.

"After the first 12 games we realized we have to get him more touches," McMahon said. "Being a JUCO kid, it's hard. It takes time. He'll be that much better next year. You can see he continues to get better each day."

He drilled his first of two 3-pointers early in the first half to put the Lions up 15-6. They kept that 9-point advantage for awhile and saw it again at 23-14 after two free throws from Avery Taggart went through.

PSU rallied to score 11 of the game's next 13 points and tie the game at 25 apiece. Then a layup from English II put the Gorillas ahead for the first time.

With the three-week break, McMahon said his group "got back to the basics" — simple things like strong, two-hand passes and getting two feet in the paint.

The Lions only turned the ball over five times and made 24 of 28 shots at the charity stripe. The Gorillas were 16 of 24 from there.

"Awesome. Huge. And we've been practicing free throws," McMahon said. "We just got back to the basics. Getting a lot of reps at the free throw line and got back to the fundamentals."

MSSU limited PSU's top scorer Max Alexander to just 17 points. Alexander is averaging just over 20 ppg this year. English II led the way with 20 while Shaw chipped in 15 more.

"They (MSSU) p,ed together pretty well. They played hard. They were just flying around so we had to make that adjustment to match their energy," English II said.

Jenkins tallied 12 in just 10 minutes off the bench. Sigmon Jr. scored 11.

Pitt State out-rebounded Southern 43-35. Along with that, the Gorillas scored 40 points in the paint to the Lions' 28.

MSSU is back in action on Thursday as Fort Hays State (11-3, 6-2 MIAA) comes to the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center in Joplin. PSU welcomes Nebraska-Kearney (5-8, 2-6 MIAA) to Pittsburg, Kansas on Thursday. Both games are 7:30 p.m. tipoffs.

The Lions and Gorillas will meet again on Saturday, Feb. 17, in Joplin.

"We'll definitely be ready," English II said. "Losing this one at home hurts. Next time we see them we'll be prepared."