By BEN JOHNSON
Northeastern State's basketball teams returned home on I-44 through Missouri and Oklahoma with a lot of confidence. The RiverHawk squads went a combined 3-1 at Lincoln and Lindenwood in the first weekend of Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association play.
But that was almost two weeks ago.
Despite having confidence alongside the carry-on luggage on the bus ride back home, Northeastern State's basketball teams took an immediate break from hoops to focus on exams at the end of the fall semester.
"I think it was a good break," NSU women's coach Randy Gipson said. "Normally you don't like that but with finals that's enough pressure and stress. It's nice for (the players) to focus on their exams and not worry about a game."
Well, the testing period has since passed, so it's time for NSU to return to the hardwood. And they'll do so tonight at home against Missouri Western. The women will tip off at 5:30 with the men to follow at 7:30.
NSU men's coach Larry Gipson said despite some early sluggishness against the Griffons, he thinks the break for exams will help his club.
"With the time off, it can be a blessing or a curse," he said. "The early portion of the game, we could be a little rusty. But both teams have had the same amount of time off.
"But it's not a bad thing to give your players some time off around exams. There are more positives than negatives in regards to that."
The NSU men will put their unblemished conference mark on the line against the Griffons (6-3, 1-0 MIAA). The RiverHawks went unscathed in the northeast portion of the league, posting comfortable victories over Lincoln (87-72) and Lindenwood (83-74).
"Anytime you can go on the road and win two games, that's a positive for you," Larry Gipson said. "We have to defend our home court now. From a coaching standpoint, you're happy when you complete a challenge but then there's another challenge starting you in the face."
Against Missouri Western, the NSU men will face a balanced scoring attack, led by two Oklahoma natives, Cortez Colbert (Midwest City alum) and Ryan Devers (former Tulsa Central standout). Colbert and Devers average 14.9 and 14.7 points a game, respectively, but the Griffons' three other projected starters — Cedric Clinckscales, Dzenan Mrkaljevic and Adarius Fulton — all post at least nine points a contest.
"They're a good basketball team," said Gipson, whose team sports a 7-2 mark overall with the two conference wins. "...(They) brought in an influx of junior college players and they're a typical MIAA team. I don't think we're playing a bad team moving forward."
Same goes for Randy Gipson's team. The NSU women will host a Missouri Western team that recently lost its leading scorer, Ariana Novak, to an anterior cruciate ligament injury. But Randy Gipson and his team are still on high alert.
"They're pretty balanced in scoring," said Randy Gipson, whose team is 4-5 overall and 1-1 in the MIAA. "Their strength is how they play as a team. They're a physical team on the inside and they have good size; those are some things we're going to have to contend with."
That task became more difficult with the news that Melissa Jones had to vacate her spot on the NSU women's roster. Jones decided to call it quits after several knee injuries kept reoccurring.
"Without Melissa Jones, we're smaller so now everyone we play is big to us," Randy Gipson said. "With this team, that's going to be a big factor. We have to find a way to rebound on the defensive end."
But at least Randy Gipson's team had almost two weeks to adapt to life without Jones.
Thanks, final exams.
"As a team, given our circumstances after losing Melissa, it gave us some practices that we really needed," Randy Gipson said. "With the young players we have, any time we can get practice this time of year, it's really valuable to us.
"The kids got their exams out of the way so now we're ready to play."