By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
If it wasn't for practice, the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team would scarcely remember what it's like to play in the friendly confines of the MSU-Northern gymnasium.
Northern has been on a longer road trip than most rock stars, not having played a game at home in almost two months. But the Skylights will make their triumphant return home this weekend with a pair of games against the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns.
Both games will tip off earlier than usual, starting at 4 p.m. today and Saturday.
Regardless of the time, head coach Mike Erickson is just happy to play a home game.
"We actually started to get into a pretty good routine playing on the road," he said. "But we're definitely excited at home. The girls should be more relaxed. I expect us to come out and play with the emotion that comes with having the best fans in the conference."
It hasn't been a lack of emotion that has gotten Northern off to a 7-4 start. The Skylights could very well be 9-2 or 8-3 if it wasn't for a lack of consistency at times.
Erickson believes that the inconsistency that plagued his team during a three-game losing streak is disappearing with every game.
"We've gotten better every time we've stepped on the court," Erickson said. "We still have moments where we lose focus and are not as aggressive. But we don't have them quite as often. We're showing signs of the team that we could be."
The Skylights can't afford too many of those moments this weekend against a solid Lethbridge squad. Two years ago, the Pronghorns came into Havre and took advantage of a mistake-prone Northern squad for a pair of wins.
To their credit, the current Skylights are not the same team. This year's squad has shown tremendous poise when it comes to taking care of the basketball. Northern averages right about 16 turnovers per game, with the average being elevated because of two bad games. Conversely, the Skylights have forced opponents into 21 turnovers a game.
Northern must continue that play against an aggressive Lethbridge squad.
"They're a good enough team that we better not take for granted," Erickson said. "They're very, very scrappy. They will go eight or nine players deep and try and get after you."
Lethbridge brings a far from stellar 2-6 record into Havre, but has played some tough games thus far.
The Pronghorns suit up eight players taller than 5-8. They are led by 5-11 forward Jessica Lynch, who is averaging 13.1 points and 7.7 rebounds a game. Lethbridge also gets 10.1 points a game from 5-11 forward Angela Thompson. Point guard Kim Bridge averages 8.8 points and five assists a game.
Despite Lethbridge's size, scoring points shouldn't be a problem for Northern. The Skylights are averaging 69 points per game. But it's where the points come from that concerns Erickson.
The Skylights have lacked balance all season. Early on the post players were doing the majority of the scoring. Lately it has been the guards lighting up the scoreboard. Erickson is just waiting for that game when both aspects click together. He feels it is close.
"I think we'd be very scary if that happened," he said. "We have some of the best shooting guards in the conference. But they would be even more effective when our posts get going. With our post players, it's a mental thing. They have the talent and the size. It's just a matter of playing through mistakes and not giving up on plays."
Northern's best inside games have come against bigger teams, so Erickson remains hopeful.
"I don't know if they focus more when they go against taller girls," Erickson said. "They definitely raise their level of play, but we still want to find some balance."
Northern's guard duo of Jaci Heny and Jessi Reome are each averaging 13 points per game, while center Megan Valgardson is scoring 10.5 points and 6.9 rebounds per game.
After a lengthy break for Thanksgiving, Erickson and his players are excited to get out there and compete.
"I think the break is exactly what we needed," he said. "We got rested up and came back refreshed. The girls are really excited to play at home for the next few weeks. This is definitely a chance for us to get some wins and start building momentum toward the conference season."