By BEN JOHNSON
There was little reason to be enthralled with Northeastern State's men's basketball team heading into the 2012-2013 campaign. The RiverHawks were coming off a four-win season and were picked to finish 14th out of 15 teams in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.
However, what played out over the next five months defied what outsiders thought was possible. NSU — with the return of coach Larry Gipson from personal leave and the emergence of players such as Bryton Hobbs, Jermaine Bransford and others — rose from the ashes to finish fourth in the MIAA before picking up a NCAA tournament berth.
Not bad for being left for dead before the season even started.
"I told our team that this is a special team for me," Gipson said. "We entered into a new league this year. I had some health issues last year and didn't coach. I thought our kids did a great job coming back and fighting through some things."
NSU's run, though, ended with an opening-round loss in the NCAA tournament to Winona State. The RiverHawks, seeded seventh in the Central Regional, were ousted in a 70-57 setback.
Hobbs led the RiverHawks (19-9) with 17 points (thanks to a 9-of-12 effort at the free-throw line), and Bransford chipped in with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Yet, it wasn't enough for NSU, which never led at any point and managed to only tie the game once at 46.
“I'm comfortable with the fact that our team did about all they could do. I'm comfortable with the fact that, realistically, Winona State is a better basketball team," Gipson said. "I think we had our opportunity, but we didn't take advantage of it. My hats off to them."
When the final horn sounded, it signaled the end of six careers at NSU. Saturday was the final game for Jon Miller, Ethan Anderson, Bransford, Zach Jones, John Schneider and Christian Mack in green and white. For Bransford, he closed out his career with his 14th double-double in a NSU uniform.
"Jermaine Bransford's personal journey with me has been up and down, bumpy to say the least," Gipson said of the 6-foot-7 forward from Sand Springs. "But I've never been more proud of a young man then I am with him. He played for us two years ago and redshirted last year. He complied with everything we asked him to do, and he came back and had an outstanding season."
With the departure of more than a handful of players, NSU will lean heavily on Hobbs, Marcus Sheppard, Landon DeMasters, Dakota Caudill, Matt Logan and TsaLiDi Sequoyah next season.
"We're entering into a new arena next year, and we're going to hang the first sports banner of any team with this NCAA Tournament trip," Gipson said. "All in all, I would say it was a good year.”
Disappointing end to NSU women's season
The Northeastern State women entered the MIAA tournament in Kansas City, Mo., sitting at the No. 8 spot in the Central Region. The RiverHawks knew they'd likely need at least one victory to feel confident about a NCAA tournament berth.
It never happened.
Instead, NSU was eliminated from the conference tournament in the quarterfinals following a 61-42 blowout loss to Fort Hays State.
"It was tough to take that loss," NSU guard Taylor Lewis said. "But definitely credit (Fort Hays State) for the way they played. We had a little bit of hope that maybe we could still make (the NCAA tournament), but it just didn't work out for us."
Clearing up his team's prognosis, NSU coach Randy Gipson said, "I think they only way we would have gotten in was if we won the tournament, just because there was the one spot left. I spoke to some people, and they said we were in if Emporia (State) didn't win the conference tournament."
Sure enough, Emporia State breezed to a 67-51 victory over Central Missouri in the championship game.
At that point, NSU's season was officially done.
It also closed out three storied careers with the RiverHawks. As freshmen, sophomores and juniors, Taylor Lewis, Tosha Tyler and Sarah Green had all helped the RiverHawks make the NCAA tournament during a three-year span. That run of good fortune ended during their senior years, though.
"You get what you get," said Lewis, who led the RiverHawks with a 16.5 scoring average this season. "I couldn't have asked for anything better; I've had a great four years. I'll never forget any of the girls and Coach Gipson and Coach (Matt) Cole. They've done a great job. I'll definitely have a lot of good memories."
NSU finished up this season 19-8 overall and 14-4 in league play.
With Lewis, Tyler and Green exiting, the RiverHawks will turn to Fontana Tate, Chelsey Stricklen, Carrington Fox, Taylor Collins and Melissa Jones as the torch-bearers next year.
"We feel good about the direction the program is going," said Gipson, who will also have Courtney Cowan and Lexie Lewis back in 2013-2014 after both sat out this year because of injuries. "You're not going to replace some of what we're losing here with these seniors, but you just try and do it in a different way."