TAHLEQUAH, OKLA. — Last season wasn’t a lot of fun at Northeastern State.
The RiverHawks were playing an independent schedule, with 15 games on the road. After five games, coach Larry Gipson was diagnosed with cancer and had to leave the team.
A year later, Northeastern State is a member of the Mid-America Athletic Association and playing in the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in program history.
“It’s been a rewarding season on so many levels,” Gipson said. “I’m really happy for the six seniors, and all they went through last year. My assistant (Jon Havens) stepped in and did a great job. These kids have risen up and met every challenge.”
Northeastern State (19-8), the seventh seed, takes on Winona State (24-7) in the quarterfinals of the Central Region men’s basketball tournament. The game is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. at Bresnan Arena.
“We know we have another big challenge ahead of us,” Gipson said.
The RiverHawks, who won a national championship in 2003, allow only 64.9 points per game, but Gipson said defense is his main concern.
“We’re very inconsistent on defense,” he said. “We are capable of being very good defensively.”
The offense is led by junior guard Bryton Hobbs, one of the new faces on the roster. He’s averaging 18.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game.
Jermaine Bransford, a 6-7 senior forward, is averaging 16.0 points and 9.7 rebounds, and senior guard Ethan Anderson, the only player on the roster that’s been in the program four years, is averaging 10.6 points and shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range.
“We’re an athletic team that likes to play defense,” Hobbs said. “We don’t give up very many points, and we try not to give up any easy points.
“On offense, we take what the defense gives us. If we rebound or get a steal, we like to run, but we can grind in the halfcourt, and we usually get a good shot.”
Northeastern State has used the same starting lineup in 23 of 26 games, and four guys have started all 26. The RiverHawks, who were picked 14th in the MIAA preseason coaches poll, don’t have a lot of depth, as the top three guys all average more than 30 minutes of playing time.
“We’ve got nothing to lose,” Hobbs said. “Teams aren’t expecting us to come up there and win games. We’re ready to bring intensity and play every second like it’s our last.”