By Ryan Divish
The Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team isn't about to let up now. Despite securing a home Frontier Conference playoff game last weekend, the Skylights still have two games remaining in the regular season.
With the possibility of a third place finish in the Frontier looming, the Skylights aren't going to be satisfied with just making the playoffs. They're eyeing that third place finish.
There are a number of combinations that could lead to Northern finishing third - more than head coach Mike Erickson can explain.
But the best way to make things easier is for the Skylights to win either tonight's game at Lewis-Clark State or Saturday's game at Westminster College.
"It is a big weekend," Erickson said. "We would like to finish third. It would be a great accomplishment considering everything that has happened and all the ladies have been through this season."
Indeed, the Skylights have seen more highs and lows than the Montana weather.
The latest low for Northern has been injuries. Leading scorer Anna Bateman was lost for the remainder of the season with a broken foot. Now starting point guard Kristie Pullin is the latest to fall victim to injury. Pullin severely sprained the wrist on her shooting hand in last weekend's game against Rocky Mountain College. She was visibly bothered in that game and it is still bothering her this week.
"We think Kristie's going to play," Erickson said. "My guess is she's going to go. How much she's going to play? We don't know."
While Erickson realizes the importance of the weekend, he also realizes the importance of having his starting point guard for the playoff game.
"If there is any question about it," Erickson said. "If it isn't at least 80 percent, than we won't hesitate sitting her."
Although playing Lewis-Clark without Pullin isn't something Erickson would like to have to go through.
The Warriors are currently sitting second in the Frontier with a 9-3 record. LC came into the MSU-Northern gymnasium on Feb. 1 and handed the Skylights their first conference loss of the season with a 69-54 victory.
LC led the game from start to finish and used a stingy pressure defense that frustrated the Skylights throughout. Dealing with LC's pressure is key for Northern to have success.
"We have to get through LC's pressure," Erickson said. "We committed too many turnovers the first game. Our passing needs to be much better and much crisper."
Another factor is rebounding. In the first game, LC did way too much of it compared to Northern. The Warriors outrebounded the Skylights 31-20 including 12 offensive rebounds.
"We can't allow them any second shots," Erickson said. "It's not that they are that much bigger than us. They just outhustled us."
Better rebounding will also help the Skylights offensively and allow them to get into their transition offense.
"I honestly think we can play with LC," Erickson said. "If we can just control tempo."
Northern will get a day off and then take on a dangerous Westminster club. Despite a 3-9 record, the Griffins are very capable of beating any team in the Frontier.
Westminster boasts one of the top players in the conference in Rebekah Steenblik, who leads the Frontier in both scoring and rebounding. Steenblik and frontcourt mate Rachael Patterson scored 20 points apiece against the Skylights in their first meeting. However, the remainder of the Griffins only scored 27 points as Northern trounced them 93-67.
It's been a long time since the Skylights have scored over 80 points in a game.
"Both teams are struggling to score points," Erickson said. "We're going to have to rely on our defense to win."
More importantly to Erickson will be his team's mental preparation during probably the most grueling road trip in the conference.
"We have to be mentally ready to play," Erickson said. "We're kind of lacking in that area. They need to do a better job of preparing themselves before the games. We need to get mentally stronger."
Regardless of what happens this weekend, Northern will be comforted with the fact that they still have that home playoff game. Still, Erickson isn't about to let his team settle for anything.
"I told the ladies to finish the season strong," Erickson said. "They need to go out, play hard and fight for it. I think they will. They are competitors. They could have bagged it a long time ago and they haven't."
Lights face tough teams without Ereaux
With two games remaining in the Frontier Conference men's basketball season, the Montana State University-Northern men's basketball team could finish as high as fourth in the conference and as low as sixth.
But Lights head coach Shawn Huse isn't overly concerned with where his team finishes in the regular season. Unlike the women, the men do not have home playoff games. Instead, all eight teams will travel to Butte to play in the Frontier tournament. With a 6-6 record, the Lights are out of winning the conference and are focusing everything toward the conference tournament.
"We're just trying to take some steps and improving for the conference tournament," Huse said.
Those steps won't be easy as Northern faces two of the top three teams in the Frontier. The Lights will take on third place Lewis-Clark State tonight and conference leader and nationally ranked Westminster College on Saturday.
Northern played both teams close in earlier meetings this season. The Lights held double-digit leads in the second half on both teams before falling in both games.
Despite focusing on the conference tournament, don't think for a moment that the Lights aren't playing to win this weekend. Northern's players are too much of competitors not to. Plus, it would be a lot better heading into the tournament with some momentum.
"It always greases the wheels when you win," Huse said. "But we also know that it's going to be very tough because we're going up against two very talented teams."
The task of winning will be made even more difficult as the Lights will be without Charlie Ereaux. The senior post player became a father on Wednesday night and will remain with his wife Caralee and their newborn son.
"There are moments in life that don't come around very often," Huse said. "Charlie needs to be there for this and we just hope and pray everything goes well."
Without Ereaux, the undersized Lights become even smaller. Unfortunately for them, LC gets a little bigger. The Warriors will be bolstered by the return of Sta'Fon Lawson and Lester Bruno.
The duo missed the game against Northern and much of the season with injury. But according to Huse, both players should be back tonight.
"I talked to LC's coach and it sounds like both guys will be back," Huse said.
It wasn't like the Warriors were small before. LC also has 6-10 center Adam Trombley and 6-4 All-American forward Jason Brazier. But it wasn't the big players that hurt Northern in the previous meeting. In fact, it was the Warriors' smallest player who did most of the damage. Ricky Frazier, who stands barely 5-8, scorched Northern for 23 points while shooting guard Brian Meneely and starting point guard Chris Allen scored 20 and 18, respectively.
"We need to do a better job of getting out on their shooters," Huse said. "That really hurt us in the first game."
LC is in the midst of a three-game losing streak and will be looking to break out against the Lights.
The same can't be said for Northern's opponent on Saturday.
The Westminster Griffins have won seven of their last eight games including a win over LC last weekend. Westminster is 10-2 in the Frontier and alone atop the conference standings.
The Griffins are still battling Carroll College for the regular season title and the number one seed at the conference tournament. Huse realizes Westminster will come out with a lot of intensity if the regular season title is on the line.
"We know they are tough," Huse said. "It's something that we can't get caught up in."
There is no doubting that this road trip is possibly the most difficult on the Frontier schedule. However, Huse just wants his team to go out and play and be loose.
"There isn't really any pressure on us," Huse said. "We pretty much know where we'll end up at the end of the season. Because of that, the guys can go out and be free swinging and just play the game."
The Skylights tip off at 6 p.m. and the Lights at 8 p.m. Both games can be heard on 92.5 KPQX-FM.