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March 14, 2013

RiverHawks savor being back at the Big Dance II

First time in D2 nationals since 2003

TAHLEQUAH — This time last year, Northeastern State was two weeks removed from a forgettable four-win campaign.

“We were practicing because our season was done,” said NSU guard Ethan Anderson, whose team endured one of the worst seasons ever produced at Northeastern State.

It was also a season in which Larry Gipson was on medical leave the majority of the time after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. But Anderson and Gipson maintained an optimistic outlook, holding out hope that success wasn’t too far around the corner for the RiverHawks.

“I said all along that even though there weren’t a lot of rewards, in terms of wins and losses last year, (assistant coach) John Havens did a tremendous job of keeping our program intact and keeping our teaching intact,” Gipson said. “In doing so, it had a huge carryover this year with the guys returning.

“That, I think, paid dividends.”

It’s hard to argue with the end result this season: a 19-8 campaign and a berth in the NCAA tournament. The RiverHawks — making their first appearance in the NCAA tournament since winning the national championship in 2003 — will play Winona State at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the Central Regional in Mankato, Minn.

“With some of the people we had coming in and Coach Gipson coming back,” Anderson said, “I knew this was possible.”

It was, although the RiverHawks didn’t make it easy on themselves.

NSU entered last week’s Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association tournament sitting at fifth in the regional rankings. A win over Northwest Missouri State in the opening round — and any victories after that — would have bolstered the RiverHawks’ résumé moving forward. Yet, a loss could have put NSU in a precarious situation as Selection Sunday approached.

The latter happened — with NSU losing 69-65 to the Bearcats — and the RiverHawks were forced to sweat it out as the NCAA revealed the Division II field.

Sure enough, though, NSU’s wish came true when the RiverHawks appeared as the No. 7 seed in the Central Regional.

“It was a dream,” said Anderson, one of six seniors and the only eldest statesman who has been at NSU throughout his entire collegiate career.

For Gipson, the selection show brought back memories of more than a decade ago.

“In 2000, when we went to the tournament, I remember sitting there and I was pretty sure we were in, but I was sweating, I was nervous and I was anxious,” Gipson said. “I had the same feeling (Sunday) night. It still, obviously, means something to me, and I hope it means something to (the players).

“We’re one of the 64 final teams in the country, and I think that’s a honor in and of itself.”

If the RiverHawks are to advance to the round of 32 on Sunday and take on the winner of the Augustana-Upper Iowa matchup, they will need to pick up their first postseason victory since 2010 when they beat Angelo State in the Lone Star Conference tournament.

“We’re an inexperienced team in tournament pressure, and I thought we were a little bit nervous in that [MIAA tournament] game (against Northwest Missouri State),” Gipson said. “We didn’t seem to play very relaxed like the way you need to in these situations. But I think that one experience will make us more relaxed.”

Considering where NSU came from at this point a year ago and that it entered after a first-round loss in the conference tournament, it’s almost as though the RiverHawks were granted a reprieve and brought back to life.

“We’re playing a little bit with house money,” Gipson said. “We thought all along we had a chance; I knew our numbers were good on that last regional ranking. I also would have felt a lot more comfortable over the weekend if we had at least got one win in the tournament. But as it is, it’s fine and it worked out.”

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