By Ben Johnson
Phoenix Sports Writer
TAHLEQUAH – Taylor Lewis seemed like a sure-fire lock to set a new career scoring mark. It never happened.
Instead, a plethora of other individual and team records went by the wayside on Saturday at Jack Dobbins Field House.
Lewis led all scorers with 26 points, and Northeastern State tied a school best with 15 made 3-pointers in an 85-57, wire-to-wire rout of Nebraska Kearney.
“We got off to a good start shooting the ball, and that starts with good movement,” NSU coach Randy Gipson said. “I think our kids shoot well when we move good on offense.”
The RiverHawks’ movement was close to pristine in what resulted in a season-high scoring effort and the highest scoring half of the season with 48 points in the opening 20 minutes.
Lewis spearheaded the offensive surge early on, totaling 21 points on 7 of 9 shooting (5 of 6 from 3-point range) in the first half. She ended the game 9 of 11 from the floor and 6 of 7 from deep.
“She’s come on strong and has been playing well,” Gipson said of Lewis. “Hopefully she can keep that up. People are going to be after her, but she’s a senior and I think she’s willing to accept the challenge.”
Paying closer attention to Lewis in the second half, Nebraska Kearney (4-7, 1-3 MIAA) limited the senior from Broken Arrow to a handful of points. But it was Lewis’ teammates that picked up the slack, offensively.
And Fontana Tate, Chelsey Stricklen and Taylor Collins made it look easy. Tate and Stricklen both notched career scoring highs – with 13 points apiece – and Collins poured in 12 points – two off her career-high.
“It’s nothing I strive for,” said Tate, whose previous scoring high was 11 against Lincoln earlier this season. “As long as we’re winning, I really don’t care. That’s the honest truth.”
Crediting NSU’s scoring balance for an opportunity to score a career high, Stricklen said, “Everybody on our team, I feel like, can go out and have a good day on any given day. That makes it a lot harder for other teams to defend us.”
Stricklen, Tate and Collins combined to go 11 of 22 from the field and 8 of 14 from 3-point range. Again, credit Lewis with some of that.
“Taylor is so efficient when she’s shooting the 3, and a lot of times that will draw way more attention to her,” Stricklen said of Nebraska Kearney’s box-and-one defensive effort on Lewis. “That tends to give other people open looks.”
As a team, NSU 54.7 percent (29 of 53) from the floor and 15 of 26 from distance.
“I think we passed the ball to the open person, and I think our kids are gaining confidence in each other,” said Gipson, whose team’s largest lead of the game was 35 early in the second half.
“They know if they move, they’ll get the ball. We just developed a good offensive rhythm.”
Leading Nebraska Kearney was Ivy Jones, who had 12 points on a 5-of-11 effort from the field. A trio of Lopers, Queen Ohamara, Shelby Zimmerman and Nicole Arp, all finished with 10 points each.
The RiverHawks, coming off an upset of No. 10 Fort Hays State on Thursday, won their third straight game and improved to 8-4 overall and 3-1 in league play.
Now, NSU will hit the road for three straight road games at Central Missouri on Wednesday, Southwest Baptist next Saturday and Central Oklahoma (Jan. 16).
“Road games are always tough, especially in the MIAA,” Stricklen said. “You’re not going to get an easy win on the road, so (this win) is some good momentum heading into those road games.”
Nebraska Kearney 60, NSU 57
In Larry Gipson’s words, his team was only at Jack Dobbins Field House because it had to be on Saturday.
“I think Kearney came to play, and we just showed up because it was game time,” the NSU coach said following NSU’s loss to Nebraska Kearney.
“We didn’t come with the focus necessary to win the game.”
Nebraska Kearney’s Tyler Shields broke a 54-all tie by draining two free throws with 48 seconds left to play to give the Lopers the lead for good. Nebraska Kearney’s Thomas Cooper and Jon Henderson each made two free throws apiece inside the final minute to add to the Lopers’ total. Sandwiched in between was Jon Miller’s 3-pointer – NSU’s only points in the final 1:39 of the game.
“Our kids did make some plays, and we made some free throws,” Nebraska Kearney coach Kevin Lofton said. “Our free-throw shooting on the year has been decent, but it’s nice that they made the ones that we needed, for the most part.”
However, NSU had chances to tie the game late. Bryton Hobbs missed a trey with 10 seconds left, and after two missed foul shots by Nebraska Kearney’s Mike Dentlinger, Hobbs missed another 3-pointer as time expired.
Jermaine Bransford paced the RiverHawks (10-2, 3-1 MIAA) with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Bransford’s double-double performance was his third in a row and his fifth this year.
Hobbs, NSU’s only other scorer in double figures, had 11 points, eight assists and six rebounds for NSU, but he went only 5 of 15 from the field.
Making field goals wasn’t just a problem for Hobbs, it was an epidemic for the RiverHawks. NSU shot a modest 41.3 percent (26 of 63) from the floor, but several of those missed field goals were point-blank attempts, including Landon DeMasters’ chance shot that could have tied the game at 56 with 31 seconds left.
“I think, by our count, we missed seven or eight layups today,” said Gipson, whose team also went 5 of 23 (21.7 percent) on 3-point attempts and 0 of 3 from the free-throw line. “I think you could look at every one of them being critical. We just didn’t finish at the rim and make shots.”
Saturday’s game marked the first time since February of 2009 that NSU didn’t convert a free throw. The last time the RiverHawks did it at home was November of 2007.
Losers of five of their last six games, the Lopers (4-8, 1-3) were led by Dentlinger’s 17 points and nine rebounds. Henderson chipped in with 11 points, and Pierre Newton added 10 points and eight rebounds.
“Our record is bad and we’ve had our bad stretches, but we’ve had some stretches where we’ve played pretty decent,” Lofton said. “But this is the first one against the level of competition, with Northeastern being 10-1, that we were able to sustain for 40 minutes.”
The game, which Nebraska Kearney led 28-24 at halftime, featured seven ties and 14 lead changes.