Nine for nets
Up first in the regional at Stephenville was Central Oklahoma, a team they had edged in a pair of four-point games and arguably were more athletic. NSU won 78-67, then Washburn 64-59 before knocking off Tarleton in the rubber match between the two, jumping out to a big early lead and never looking back in a 56-46 win.
Bill Huddleston, NSU’s radio voice who has his own championship ring from the season, remembers being astonished by one thing that night.
“Tarleton offered to let them cut down the nets,” he said. “They didn’t. Those weren’t the ones they wanted.”
The Elite Eight was in Lakeland, Fla. Nine of the original 14 players who began the journey were left for the trip due to injuries and players quitting.
Gipson said ultimately, leaner meant meaner.
“We had a better chemistry,” he said. “Those nine weren’t a difficult team to coach. Typically, you run an eight or nine-man rotation. The top seven guys were clear cut and there were two more who knew their roles. There were no playing time issues and the group as a whole was unselfish.”
With Gipson’s motion offense, it needed to be.
Up first in Lakeland was Nebraska-Kearney, a team the current RiverHawks will play in the MIAA. NSU shot nearly 70 percent in the Elite Eight quarterfinals. They made 10 of 16 3-pointers and rolled, 94-72. Led by guard Derek Cline, who made 7 of 8 3-pointers and finished with 25 points, Northeastern scored its season high against the Lopers.
“They were much bigger and stronger than we were,” Gipson said.
The semifinal saw NSU take an 84-69 win over Queens, N.C. in another uncontested battle.
This didn’t surprise Barkley.
“No one there played our motion offense and I felt they would have trouble against that, combined with it being run by guys who didn’t hesitate to share the basketball or care who got the credit,” he said.
Next up was Kentucky Wesleyan, in its sixth consecutive title game appearance. They’d won it in 1999 and 2001 and several months after this appearance, would end up having to forfeit all its victories due to two players who had transferred illegally, according to an internal investigation.
Both teams led by five in a first half that was tied at the break, 25-25. It was tied six times, the last on a 3 by Cline off a pass from Robinson. NSU’s first eight baskets of the second half were 3s before Robinson took a layup off a feed from Cline for a 52-44 lead with 10:22 to go. The lead reached double-digits on Hinson’s layup with 1:18 to play.
Final, NSU 75, Kentucky Wesleyan 64.
Finishing 32-3, NSU was 9-of-14 from 3-point range in the second half, that spurt of eight in a row making the difference. They were 2-of-9 in the first half. But they had an 18-9 edge in points off turnovers. When the offense wasn’t working, the defense was.
“Their coach had kind of downplayed our offense and our defensive schemes,” Robinson said. “We showed them. I don’t think anyone among us believed we weren’t going to win that game.”
Gipson, who had experienced a national tournament as a coach at Hutchinson (Kan.) Junior College, wasn’t so sure before they left.
“I told them prior to leaving that it was my experience that about a quarter of the teams, in this case two, were happy to be there,” Gipson said. “Then another 2-3 more were wondering if they belonged there and that two absolutely believed they could win and those would be the teams in the finals.
“As well as we played in the quarterfinals against a team that was so much bigger than we were, I thought to myself ‘hey we’re as good as anyone here.’”
Hinson was the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. Robinson and Cline were on the all-tournament team.
Robinson’s favorite memory of the tournament didn’t occur until the team returned to Tahlequah.
“The day we won, our fans got back to surprise us when we got back to school. They took a fan bus to Lakeland, they drove all the way back after the game and we flew out that next morning,” he said.
“Somehow they were back to cheer us when we got there. That has always stuck with me, how those people appreciated us.”
Barkley borrowed from that as he went on to follow career-wise in Gipson’s footsteps.
“I came to understand that chemistry is not something you go out and just recruit, but build. You have to find the right guys, guys who do the right thing, who can play but also have that type of team first character.
“Obviously you need talent but getting what we had wasn’t put together in one year’s time. It’s something you have to work on building and you have to stay consistent with finding the guys who fit that.”