By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
It happened in a locker room, a heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul kind of convocation that, perhaps had it not occurred, would have left a hole history would have forgotten a decade later.
There would be no national championship trophy sitting in the middle of the trophy case in the cozy confines of Jack Dobbins Field House.
Northeastern State men’s basketball team had just been hammered — no, embarrassed, they say — in their opening contest in the Lone Star Conference tournament, a 78-56 setback against West Texas A&M that was their second in three games but third in 29 contests.
Hence, the embarrassment — from a team that only a year earlier was upended in their own gym after receiving a first-round bye in the South Central Regional.
That loss caught the then-Redmen off guard. This one wasn’t supposed to happen at all.
“This was the last conference tournament for a bunch of guys who had been there for four years and to go out like that, getting creamed all over the floor, that was tough,” said one of those seniors, Justin Barkley.
Now the men’s head coach at Rogers State, Barkley let a little bit of that coaching instinct come out in his player suit. In that locker room, he led a meeting that, he and his teammates and coach agree, turned the home stretch of a season around.
“We had gone through a streak where we were finding ways to win close games and probably weren't handling our business in a mature way by letting teams hang around, that kind of thing,” Barkley said. “The talk wasn't personal, it's business. And when we got back home and went to practice, that was the theme. We had found a sense of urgency that we had lost.”
Larry Gipson wasn’t a part of the meeting. The head coach’s words were short and to the point moments earlier: The next bad game they played would be their last.
“Did I know what happened? I really didn’t,” he recalled last week. “We were at Eastern New Mexico, the players called it and I really didn’t want them to meet. I was ready to go in and stop it. But (assistant) coach (Scott) Reed stopped me and told me to let them meet. We had the long drive back and on Sunday I delivered my statement again to the seniors.
“But I could sense there was a change in attitude and focus already.”
Guts to glory
It was the preference of Darnell Hinson, a former Muskogee all-stater and redshirt junior on that team, that the players take care of it themselves.
“I was scared of Gipson,” he said. “When something happened it was always one of our faults. And you didn’t want Gipson mad at you.”
Gipson like now — with his shaven scalp, deep voice and dark-eyed stare — would blend in well with a mob. He had that intimidating sense about him.
He was demanding in action and voice. Hinson saw it the moment he got there.
“We had what we called a gut mile which we’d run following a mile run and seven 200-yard runs,” Hinson said. “It was called that because you’d feel it in the gut.
“One day I couldn't finish it and coach told me I'd be back out the next morning at 6 to do it until I got it done. I remember telling Justin I couldn't do it, that I was just going to quit. I wasn't playing basketball, this was some kind of track team.”
Hinson would end up redshirting his freshman year.
“But by my sophomore year, I was the best gut-miler ever,” he said.
Barkley, Hinson and Jon Shepherd, a Tulsa Union grad who would become a two-time All-American, were part of the same class. Gipson remembers those gut miles and other gut checks.
“Darnell and I had this conversation recently and he reiterated how those three as freshmen, coming into a veteran team they were practicing against and starting day one with conditioning, two would quit and one of the three would tell them no, they were sticking it out. Over time they’d take turns as to who was quitting and who was going to encourage them.”
For Barkley, it was the physical demands and the culture adjustment.
“I came from a high school with one hall (Inola) to a campus of 7,000-8,000 and players from the east coast to the west coast. Then those workouts were grueling. We've come from going against 16-17 year olds to battling against grown men. It all was both mental and physical.”
It would pay off in 2001-02 with a Lone Star Conference championship, a school record for consecutive wins (15), a No. 1 ranking during that streak and a host role in the South Central Regional. Rockhurst won its opening game to get NSU, and prevailed 75-70 in double overtime.
“That stuck with us,” said Shon Robinson, a Baylor transfer out of Baton Rouge, La. “We were better than that and it was pretty bitter to not only come up short, but do as the host.”
“It was really tough to digest, just a horrible call that fouled Shepherd out at the end of regulation,” Gipson said. “Earl Sanchez, who had been a starter for most of the year broke his foot with 10 games to go. Robinson had a severely sprained ankle at the end. Guys were really hungry returning. Our challenge was not to allow complacency to set in.”
They began 2002-03 with an 86-69 win over Bacone then rolled off seven consecutive wins before losing 73-56 at Missouri Southern. Then came a new record for consecutive wins, an 18-game win streak that included a 61-48 win at home against then-No. 1 Tarleton State. Tarleton would return the favor in Stephenville, Texas, to end the streak and then after a two-point win over Midwestern State, came the worst loss of the year.
Then the transformation.
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.”
Northeastern moves from the Lone Star Conference to the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association and will face Nebraska-Kearney on Jan. 5 and Washburn on Jan. 19, both at Dobbins Field House. The season opens Nov. 12 against Northwestern Oklahoma, also at Dobbins. The women open Nov. 9 on the road.
“With the best two or three teams, there’s no difference,” Gipson said. “With the LSC there’s more haves than have nots. The MIAA’s more consistent top to bottom.”
Times have been tough since for NSU, which since winning the national title hasn’t advanced past the LSC championship game. They’re picked by both the media and coaches to finish 14th of 15 this season. Washburn is the league favorite in both the coaches and media poll and UNK is 11th. There’s also a new facility under construction.
“Being a Kansas-Missouri centered league there’s a great difference in facilities and passion there. It will be a challenge to meet it on all levels,” Gipson said.
The nine who were on the NSU roster when the then-Redmen won the 2002-03 NCAA men’s basketball national championship, with help from school sources as to what they are doing or have done since that season:
Darnell Hinson — went on to play basketball in Europe and Australia.
Reggie Battee — went to work for the U.S. Postal Service in California.
Justin Barkley — head men’s coach at Rogers State.
John Shepard — living in Las Vegas and works in the casino industry
Shon Robinson — runs an electrical contractor business in Baton Rouge, La.
Derek Cline — lives in Kansas.
Ty Merchant — lives in Knoxville, Tenn.
Shiloh Shores —assistant basketball coach at Keys High School.
Jeff Whitehead —transferred to Oklahoma State from NSU.