By BEN JOHNSON
Bryton Hobbs and Craig Nicholson are two of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association’s premier guards. Their prowesses on the hardwood are unquestioned.
Both score in bunches. Hobbs, Northeastern State’s 6-foot senior guard, leads the league in scoring at 23.7 points a game. Nicholson, a 5-foot-8 sophomore from Wichita, Kan., provides Fort Hays State with 16.3 points per contest.
Both are big on assistance. Nicholson leads the MIAA by a healthy margin at 8.4 assists per game. Hobbs, second in the league, is sitting at 5.5 dimes per outing.
Both get to the foul line — where they’re both quite proficient. Hobbs in the conference’s best at getting to the free-throw line, where he’s attempted 173 shots while making 142 (82.1 percent) of the freebies. Nicholson has made 115 of his 139 attempts (82.7 percent) at the foul line.
On Saturday at the NSU Event Center, the two guards will clash at 3:30 p.m. when Fort Hays State brings its five-game winning streak to town. The RiverHawks, on the other hand, snapped a two-game skid with a win over Nebraska Kearney on Thursday night.
“This is a tough league to get wins in,” NSU coach Larry Gipson said following the takedown of Nebraska Kearney. “We protected our home court.”
To do so against the Tigers (13-3, 5-3 MIAA), NSU may not have to worry so much about Nicholson’s capability at point guard. No, the RiverHawks (11-4, 6-2) may be apt to trying to shut down Dwayne Brunson in the paint.
At 6 feet, 7 inches tall, Brunson averages 18 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. The Queens, N.Y., native is also coming off a 31-points, nine-rebound effort in a 101-97 win over Central Oklahoma on Thursday.
Luckily for NSU, it has forward Landon DeMasters back after he missed the RiverHawks’ last six out of seven conference games before returning against Nebraska Kearney on Thursday.
“Landon DeMasters adds stability to our lineup,” Gipson said. “Obviously he was rusty because he had not played since Dec. 7. He understands the game extremely well and he is a coach’s son.”
Before the RiverHawks can attempt to slow down Nicholson and Brunson, the NSU women will try their hand at upending Fort Hays State, which is ranked 23rd in women’s hoops.
If the RiverHawks (7-8, 4-4) are to have any success, it’ll come with hampering Kate Lehman’s production for the Tigers (12-2, 6-2). Lehman is sixth in the league in scoring (15.6 points a game), first in rebounding (11.9 rebounds a contest), first in field-goal percentage (59.6 percent from the field) and first in blocked shots (5.6 per game).
In a trouncing of Lindenwood on Jan. 9, Lehman racked up a triple-double with 13 points, 12 rebounds and 10 blocks. That was the second in a current four-game winning streak for the Tigers, who have blown out all four opponents since losing at Missouri Southern on Jan. 4.
Aiming to hamper Lehman for 40 minutes will be NSU’s Carrington Fox and Che’Ron Lewis. Fox is coming off a nine-point, 11-rebound, eight-block and five-assist game in the RiverHawks’ win over Nebraska Kearney on Thursday.
“She played like you want your senior leader to play,” NSU women’s coach Randy Gipson said. “I thought that inspired us.”
NSU will need that ongoing inspiration with an upcoming four-game stretch that includes No. 3 Emporia State, Washburn and Pittsburg State, in addition to taking on Fort Hays State.
But at least NSU picked up some momentum before challenging some overwhelming opponents.
“Any win is big,” Gipson said. “...Maybe we gained a little optimism.”
That always helps.