By BEN JOHNSON
Dalen Qualls had a sly grin plastered across his face. And after NSU looked dead to rights in the first half, who could blame him?
Qualls received a pass from Amir Gilliam and calmly sank a 3-pointer from the left wing with five minutes left in the second half. That was the central theme in the final 20 minutes as the RiverHawks rallied from a 16-point first-half deficit to beat Southwest Baptist, 97-91, at the NSU Event Center on Thursday night.
“I feed off of hype and energy and crowds and stuff like that,” said Qualls, who buried seven 3-pointers — the most since Antoine Branch in 2011 — and logged 23 points for the RiverHawks. “I’ve always been a scorer and stuff, so if I get the ball in the right places, I feel like I can (make 3-pointers) consistently.”
Qualls was far from NSU’s only scoring threat as the RiverHawks improved to 10-2 overall and 5-0 in Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association play.
Bryton Hobbs did Bryton Hobbs things and led NSU — and every other scorer — with 40 points. Hobbs was 10-of-18 from the field, four-of-nine from beyond the 3-point arc and 16-of-21 from the free-throw line.
“I just came out looking to attack,” said Hobbs, who eclipsed his previous high scoring mark of 36 — which he had in a road win at Lindenwood in December.
“When (Southwest Baptist) started off hot and Curtis (Evans) got in foul trouble, I knew I needed to pick it up. And shots just started falling, and I started getting into the creases, and things just started happening for me.”
It all sounded easy. But it wasn’t.
At the 5:50 mark of the first half, NSU was staring a 36-20 deficit in the face. At that point, it was time for the RiverHawks to reassess what they were doing.
“We had to guard (Southwest Baptist). I mean, they were on pace to get about 115 points for the game, and we weren’t playing any defense,” NSU coach Larry Gipson said. “We were just making some cardinal defensive mistakes.”
That’s when Amir Gilliam checked in with 2 minutes, 33 seconds left until halftime. The 6-foot guard from Newark, N.J. helped stabilize the RiverHawks on the defensive end.
“Amir has come back over the break and had some good practices, and I thought he deserved a shot to play,” Gipson said of Gilliam, who dished out a game-high 11 assists. “He stabilized our defense and that’s what we were having trouble with early in the game.”
NSU cut Southwest Baptist’s lead to 43-40 at halftime, and the RiverHawks took over in the second half. NSU tied the game at 49-all at the 17:10 mark and played back-and-forth with the Bearcats (8-6, 1-4 MIAA) until the RiverHawks took the lead for good on a Qualls 3-pointer with 7:23 left.
“I think this is by far his best performance,” Gipson said of Qualls. “We recruited him as a shooter and he hasn’t really shot that well during the year, but in tonight’s game he shot well. And it was timely when we needed it.”
Marcus Sheppard helped keep NSU from getting blown out in the first half, when he poured in 15 of his 18 total points.
As a team, NSU was 32-of-58 (55.2 percent) from the field, 52 percent (13-of-25) from 3-point range and 20-of-30 (66.7 percent) from the foul line.
The Bearcats were 34-of-74 (45.9 percent) from the field but only 22.9 percent (eight-of-35) from beyond the 3-point arc.
Leading Southwest Baptist — the highest scoring team in the MIAA — on the offensive end was Jaywuan Hill with 25 points on a 10-of-13 effort from the field. Menas Stephens (17), Rashaad Brown-Peterson (14) and Afam Obukwelu (10) all added double-digit scoring efforts for the Bearcats.
As the lone remaining unbeaten team in conference play, NSU will now turn its focus to Missouri Southern at home on Saturday.
“To get a win, I’m happy with that,” Gipson said. “Now, obviously, we have to get better than we played tonight. But to get a win, we’re pleased.”
NSU 97, Southwest Baptist 91
SBU 43 48 -- 91
NSU 40 57 -- 97
SBU (8-6, 1-4): Jaywuan Hill 25, Menas Stephens 17, Rashaad Brown-Peterson 14, Afam Obukwelu 10, Stewart 9, Barmore 9, Guiot 4, Owoseni 3.
NSU (10-2, 5-0): Bryton Hobbs 40, Dalen Qualls 23, Marcus Sheppard 18, Keon Littleton 9, Evans 4, Gilliam 3.