By Ryan Divish
As the final seconds ticked away during Friday night's Frontier Conference women's tournament first-round game, one thing was for certain. Miranda Valley wasn't giving up the ball.
In her final game in the MSU-Northern gymnasium, Montana State University-Northern's lone senior capped off a scintillating performance, weaving through the Montana Tech defense to run the clock out on the Skylights' 90-81 victory over the Orediggers.
After scoring a total of nine points in the previous three games, Valley exploded for a team-high 25 points to lead the Skylights into the conference semifinals against Lewis-Clark State today at the Butte Civic Center.
"What a great game for her to come out and play like that," said Skylights head coach Mike Erickson. "She's very emotional and the girls really fed off her emotion. She's our only senior and the girls really look to her for leadership."
Said Valley: "I haven't had a good offensive game in awhile. It just kind of happened. My shots were falling and everything kind of clicked."
Everything kind of clicked for the Skylights offensively as well. Since the injury to leading scorer Anna Bateman, Northern has struggled to find offensive consistency and get scoring from more than a couple players a night.
But against Tech, the Skylights had four players in double figures, and two players scored nine points in the game.
"We told the ladies going into the game to have confidence in themselves because not one person is going to bail us out," Erickson said. "It's taken us awhile to get adjusted to playing without Anna. We don't really have a go-to person. It's more by committee."
Said Valley: "Everybody contributed tonight. When we do that, teams can't focus on one person and we don't always look for one person."
Indeed, in the final five minutes of the game, six different Skylights scored baskets to finish off a pesky Oredigger squad.
Conversely, Tech mainly relied on standout center Melissa Ritter in the final minutes of the game. Ritter scored 10 of her game-high 32 points as Tech fought back after surrendering the lead early in the second half.
The Diggers grabbed a 43-40 lead as Ritter opened the second half with a tough basket inside. Northern answered with a 10-2 run that featured a pair of scores from Valley, a Nichole Neill jumpshot and a Kristie Pullin three-pointer to take a 50-45 lead.
From there, Northern never trailed, but the Skylights didn't exactly pull away. With Brettney Vermandel and Lindsay Buehler battling foul trouble, Tech pounded the ball inside to Ritter and Jamie Scharnowske and kept the game close throughout.
A Ritter putback pulled the Diggers within four at 81-77. But Northern answered with a tough score inside by Buehler and 6-7 combined free-throw shooting from Valley and Kristal Lohse to ice the game.
Besides Valley, Northern got 16 points from Neill, 11 from Buehler and 10 from Pullin.
The Skylights shot a solid 52 percent from the field, and, much to Erickson's liking, only committed 14 turnovers.
"To commit only 14 turnovers in the whole game was the key," Erickson said. "This time of year every single possession counts and the girls took pride in every possession."
In a must-win situation, the Skylights delivered one of their best overall performances of the season.
"When it's a must-win game," Erickson said, "we come out and play with a sense of urgency and play well. We don't have the best players or the best athletes in the conference, but we have ladies that believe in each other."
Northern will play another must-win game against a solid Lewis-Clark State team that defeated Westminster College, 72-63, to move into today's semifinal game at 6 p.m.
LC State is the only team in the Frontier that the Skylights haven't defeated this season. But that doesn't matter to Erickson.
"We know we can play with LC," Erickson said. " The key is turnovers. It's that simple. We have to take care of the ball."
Ideally, Erickson would like to have his team stay under 15 turnovers for the game. It will be tough with LC State's harassing full-court pressure.
"We did a lot better job handling their pressure in the second game," Erickson said. "They are going to drop into a zone and we have been doing a better job of working against a zone. We're going to need everyone to contribute like tonight."
One thing Erickson is certain about is that his team can't be content with just making it to Butte.
"We can't be happy just being there," Erickson said. "We need to be ready to play and come out with this same intensity. This season isn't over yet."
Northern and LC State will tip off at 6 p.m. The game can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.