ENID, Okla. —
By Bruce Campbell
Dalen Qualls wants a big crowd at the Mabee Center when he and his Northern Oklahoma College Jets teammates face Connors tonight. in the second half of a women’s-men’s Oklahoma Collegiate Athletic Conference basketball doubleheader. The women are scheduled to tip-off at 6 p.m. followed by the men at 8.
“We got something to prove,’’ said Qualls about the game which matches up two of the six teams tied for the men’s lead. “We want everybody here to show what we’re made of.’’
Qualls, a sophomore averaging 14 points per game, showed what he was made of Monday when his four-point play with two seconds remaining gave the Jets an improbable come-from-behind 67-66 win over Western.
“That’s something you always want to do,’’ said Qualls about making the game-winner. “When you grow up, you pretend you’re Michael Jordan and count down the last 10 seconds on the driveway and hit the shot.’’
Qualls, though, has made plays like that in real life.
He made a four-point play in the final seconds in his senior year at Stratford to beat Preston in the Tournament of Champions.
“I’ve been in those situations before,’’ Qualls said. “Being a coach’s kid (his father was his high school coach), he put me in those situations. I’m kind of used to it.’’
Qualls said he didn’t make any special move to draw the foul against Western. He had hit two free throws seconds earlier to keep the Jets within striking distance.
“I just got clobbered,’’ he said. “I gave him a pump fake and he went flying into the air. I just took one dribble and got lucky that I was fouled so we could get the W.’’
The “W” meant more to Qualls than being the hero. That win could have a major impact on the rest of the Jets’ season. If NOC had lost, it would have been in sixth place and going into tonight’s Connors game with back-to-back losses.
“Sometimes you need wins like that to boost your confidence,’’ Qualls said. “We haven’t played well since the Christmas break. Hopefully, that will boost us (tonight) as we get ready for Connors.’’
The Jets had been sluggish in a 85-76 loss to Eastern on Jan. 10 and had blown a big lead before beating NOC Tonkawa 69-65 on Jan. 7.
He doesn’t blame the slump on four-hour bus trips that are common in the OCAC.
“We can’t use that as an excuse,’’ Qualls said. “That’s not the mindset you have to have. You have to stay focused. This is a tough conference, especially on the road. You have to be ready to play.’’
That’s not always easy to do to at the almost-empty gyms the Jets have played in the last two games after a long bus trip.
“You have to create your own energy,’’ Qualls said, “and do what your team needs you to do.’’
Qualls said that energy begins on defense.
“If your intensity on defense is right, that’s going to translate on the offensive end, too,’’ Qualls said. “That’s what Coach (Greg) Shamburg preaches to us. You have to get it done on defense. Our legs are a little tired, but we can’t use that as an excuse. You have to get ready to play.’’
Qualls, in the preseason, was called the nation’s best three-point shooter by Shamburg. His numbers aren’t bad for a long range shooter — 40.2 percent from the field, 35.7 from three and 80.9 percent from the line.
But that’s not good enough for Qualls.
“I know what I’m capable of doing,’’ Qualls said. “I’m capable of shooting 48 percent. My shot has gotten a whole lot better since high school. I’m happy about that, but it has to be up in the mid-40s at least.’’
He goes to the gym on his own to practice. Qualls said he’s been shooting well in practice. He’s coming off of two of his better games this season — 17 against Eastern and 18 against Western.
“I always was taught that shooters keep shooting and you’ll eventually find the net, so that’s what I’ve been trying to do,’’ Qualls said. “My confidence is getting back up. You get frustrated when you can’t hit a shot, but you can’t think about the shots you miss.
You can only think about the made shots.’’
He said one problem he was having was shooting from too far out. Assistant coach Ryan Mahoney told him to shoot right behind the 3-point line and take advantage of his screens.
“I can hit those shots all night long,’’ he said.
Qualls feels less pressure now than when he was in high school, where he was one of the state’s top all-time leading scorers.
“It was always ‘daddy’s boy, daddy’s boy,’’’ Qualls said. “I don’t hear that now. I’m happy about that. It’s a lot of relief.
“I don’t worry about the pressure. I’m happy about getting a W (NOC Enid is 14-4 overall). I know my shot is going to come. I’m not worried about it. As long as we win, I’m satisfied.’’
When he’s not on, he’s looking for Jeremy Espinoza (15.1 ppg) or Connor Brooks (13.2).
“That’s what the (NBA’s Miami) Heat does when their No. 1 or No. 2 is struggling,’’ Qualls said. “The other guys step up and hit shots. That’s what Jeremy has been doing all year. He’s picked us up.’’
Qualls said the Jets have to protect home court against Connors, a traditional power.
“The sophomores have been preaching to the freshmen about the intensity you have to have in practice to win games,’’ he said. “They are starting to come around. Last year we looked to X (Xavier McClish) for stuff. This year Connor, Jeremy, Philip (Brown), Rex (Farmer) and I all talk to the freshmen. We’re taking the leaders role.’’
Qualls’ goal is to get to the national tournament — something the Jets fell a game short of when they lost to Eastern in the regional finals.
“The further we can go, the more it will help our looks for next season (as far as four-year schools),’’ he said. “Right now my mindset is just getting to the national tournament and winning it.’’