By BEN JOHNSON
All Randy Gipson needed was some practice time with his players. Now Northeastern State is firing on all cylinders.
Fontana Tate tied a career-high with 18 points, and freshman Che’Ron Lewis was a rebound shy of a double-double as the RiverHawks cruised to a 77-39 blowout of Arkansas-Fort Smith at NSU’s new event center on Tuesday night.
“We took a day off and then we had four intense practices,” said Gipson, NSU’s coach, referring back Nov. 19 after his team beat Tarleton State. “I think it showed tonight. I thought our energy was good, and our defensive fundamentals were better.”
There’s no denying that.
The RiverHawks (2-4), after claiming their first lead with 14:33 left in the first half, coasted the rest of the way, thanks to a demoralizing defensive effort. NSU — in holding an opponent to under 40 points since December of 2011 — pestered the Lady Lions to the tune of 23.7 percent (14 of 59) shooting from the field. Arkansas-Fort Smith (1-6) wasn’t much better behind the 3-point arc either, going 2 of 13 (15.4 percent).
“It was overall a great team effort,” said Tate, who finished seven-of-nine from the field to go along with six rebounds. “Our defense turned into offense, and that’s what we stressed was defense.”
When NSU wasn’t converting 13 Arkansas-Fort Smith turnovers into 25 points on the other end, the RiverHawks were busy enjoying a sizable rebounding advantage.
“That was the best work we’ve done on the boards,” said Gipson, whose team grabbed 49 rebounds, compared to UAFS’ 29. “I think it really reflects how we practiced on that. The kids are starting to think faster and starting to get themselves in defensive position to contest shots and then still be able to find the ball once it comes off the rim.”
It was also a balanced offensive effort for the RiverHawks in their second straight victory. Lewis had 15 points while finishing one rebound shy of a double-double, and Kate Bellamy went five-of-seven from the floor for 10 points.
“With the team that we played, we knew we were probably going to have trouble coming into the game,” Lewis said, “but we had a team effort and we played pretty good together.”
Not a single Arkansas-Fort Smith player registered a double-digit scoring effort. Sydney Franklin led the Lady Lions with seven points, and Justyne Huber added six points and six rebounds.
Nearly everyone in a home uniform logged points against UAFS. Both Courtney Cowan and Melissa Jones came off the bench to supply seven points apiece for the RiverHawks, who outscored UAFS’ bench 30-19.
“I think our young players have a lot of ability, and it’s a matter of everyone getting used to the greater intensity, the bigger athletes and bigger people,” said Gipson, whose team is averaging 69.8 points per game in its last four contests. “You can see flashes of brilliance in just about everybody.”
NSU put Arkansas-Fort Smith away early by taking a 13-4 lead midway through the first half. Then, a 33-17 NSU lead at halftime eventually ballooned into a 49-19 edge at the 12:16 of the second half. The RiverHawks would own its largest lead of the contest at 74-33 with 2:51 left in the non-conference matchup.
Northeastern State will now prepare for its fourth straight home game on Saturday when it hosts Southeastern Oklahoma State on Saturday.
NSU 77, Ark.-Fort Smith 39
UAFS 17 22 -- 39
NSU 33 44 -- 77
UAFS (1-6): Sydney Franklin 7, Justyne Huber 6, Followwell 5, N’Goran 4, Backus 4, McFadden 4, Perry 4, Hopkins 2, Allen 2, Holbert 1.
NSU (2-4): Fontana Tate 18, Che’Ron Lewis 15, Kate Bellamy 10, Sarah Sagely 8, Cowan 7, Jones 7, Jackson 6, Fox 3, Beathard 3.