By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Conference records won't be on the line, but don't think for a second that tonight's nonconference matchup between the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team and the University of Great Falls will be lackadaisical. The will still have a conference game like intensity when the two teams step to the floor at 7 p.m. in Great Falls.
It's the nature of the beast when two rivals like Northern and UGF meet. The two teams have developed a competitive, if not friendly, rivalry since the Argos entered the Frontier Conference.
It's not often that two conference teams meet in a nonconference setting, but Skylights head coach Mike Erickson had little choice.
"We did our scheduling along with UGF this year," he said. "And we both came up a game short. So we decided to play each other. We go down there this year, and they'll come up here next year."
Northern fans certainly won't mind an extra match-up with the Argos. The Skylights swept UGF last season in three games, with the first two wins coming with relative ease. The third game - a Frontier Conference playoff game - wasn't quite so easy.
UGF almost knocked off Northern on its home floor, but finally succumbed 78-71.
"They played us tougher each time we played them last year," Erickson said. "They gave us all we could handle in the playoff."
UGF figures to be even better under second-year head coach Roger Hatler.
The Argos return their top three scorers from last year in Kim Freeman, Nichole Neill and Jayla McPherson.
The versatile Freeman isn't a shooter or a penetrator, she's just a flat scorer. She finds ways to get baskets, it's that simple. Freeman was second in the conference in scoring last year and is seventh at 14.6 points per game this year.
Neill, as most Skylight fans know from her days with the team, is a deadly shooter, who can get very hot from the outside very quickly. She scored 47 points in a game this season and is averaging 14.9 points per game this year.
McPherson, a former HHS standout, had her best game of last season against the Skylights in the playoffs, scoring 23 points and grabbing 6 rebounds. This year she's already bested those totals on several occasion and has turned into a force inside, shooting 53 percent from the field and pulling down 6.8 rebounds per game.
"Obviously, we know we have to defend Freeman and Neill because they are dangerous scorers," Erickson said. "But McPherson scares me a little. She hurt us in the playoffs last year and is really becoming a presence inside. She should be even better because she has some help inside."
That help would be 5-10 forward Dana Ball, who has given UGF another inside presence to compliment McPherson and the shooters. Ball is averaging 14.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game.
"They are much more balanced this year," Erickson said. "Last year, you had to shut the two girls down, this year it's different. We need to get real physical with them and not allow them get into their offensive sets."
Northern will counter all of that firepower with its balanced offensive attack led by Megan Valgardson, Jessi Reome and Jaci Heny.
Valgardson had some of her biggest games against UGF last season and is averaging 13 points and 7.2 rebounds a game. Erickson is counting on her and DeLayne Johnston scoring inside again.
"We beat them up inside last year," Erickson said. "Hopefully we can do that again because it will open things up for our shooters."
Heny and Reome are combining to average close to 27 points per game, and have shot the ball particularly well as of late.
"We need step our level of play," Erickson said. "This game is going to have conference-game feel and we need be ready for it. We can't look past them. They are scary team that's playing with a lot of confidence."
Northern's weekend won't be finished on Friday. The Skylights will return home to face Augustana University College on Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m.
The Thunder come to Havre with a 9-3 record and are led by forward Pamela Reinke, who averages 13.7 and 8.6 rebounds per game, and guard Paige Gaudreau, who chips in with 12.5 points per game.
"I don't know much about them," Erickson admitted. "I talked a few coaches and I think they will be similar to the Lethbridge team we faced last weekend."