By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
Run your own race.
Head coach Mike Erickson has preached that mantra to his Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team for the entire season. Basically, it means the Skylights can't get caught up in the other team's wins, losses or place in the conference standings.
If they only worry about the things they can control, then they will be fine at the end.
Well, the finish line is near in the Skylights' race, and a few obstacles still remain as they open the Frontier Conference Women's Basketball Tournament tonight with the Rocky Mountain College Battlin' Bears at 6 p.m. at the Maroon Activity Center in Butte.
Thus far, the Skylights' race has gone pretty smoothly, with a 9-5 record in the conference and a 23-9 overall record, good enough for fourth place in the conference.
"That tells you how tough the top teams are because in a lot of years, 9-5 is good enough to finish one or two," Erickson said.
There were a few bumps along the way, including a 72-67 loss to Rocky in Billings on Jan. 13. Northern smoothed that with a forceful 90-72 win in its final home game of the season.
"Obviously, we know we can beat them," Erickson said. "And we certainly had more than a few opportunities to win the first game. We played them very tough and just had some mistakes down the stretch. I think we should be very confident going in."
Confident, but not overconfident. Rocky is still a very dangerous team. The Bears come into the tourney as the fifth seed, finishing fifth in the conference with a 7-7 league record and an 11-18 record overall.
"We can't just walk in there and expect Rocky to roll over for us," Erickson said. "They have a solid team with some very good individuals."
The Bears start and end with point guard Jenny Balgua. The 5-7 senior and former Skylight is one of the most competitive players in the league. She simply cannot stand losing and has a tendency of playing her best in the biggest games.
"She's their emotional and physical leader," Erickson said. "She can carry them with her competitiveness alone."
There is more than just a competitive fire to Balgua. She has plenty of talent. She leads Rocky in scoring (13.6 ppg), rebounding (4.3), assists (3.2) and steals (2.8).
In Rocky's win over Northern, Balgua had 22 points, six assists and two steals in the win. But more than anything, it's mentality. When Balgua is playing well, the Bears are playing well.
"She has the ability to make everyone around her better," Erickson said. "They really feed off her confidence. We did a better job of slowing her down in Havre and will have to be even better defensively in Butte."
Although it may not seem like it at times, there is much more to Rocky than Balgua. The Bears also have a solid supporting cast in Rae Dawn Lei, Gretchen Wall, Alyssa Root, Sarah Bills, Jeri Matter, Katherine Bitz and Jamie Graham.
Wall and Root combine for close to 19 points per game and have the potential to score points in bunches. Lei is a solid all-around player, while the trio of Hi-Line standouts Matter, Bitz and Graham has given Rocky solid minutes all season.
The wild card may be the 6-4 Bills. She is one of the tallest players in the conference and is a difference-maker on both ends of the floor.
"She is so big and she has really long arms, which makes her play even taller," Erickson said. "She didn't play much the first time we played them, but
she is starting to play more and more, which is only going to make her better."
Bills is averaging 7.2 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, but she leads the conference in blocks at almost three per game and a whopping 82 on the season.
"She's a defensive presence just by standing in the middle of the key," Erickson said. "She changes how you do things. What we need to do is attack her and try and get her into foul trouble."
Northern also had success running past Bills and Rocky. In their win, the Skylights had a myriad of fast-break buckets and really pushed the tempo into their favor.
"We want to get out in transition and get some easy baskets," Erickson said. "We haven't been the greatest scoring team on the road, and getting some easy baskets early will help our confidence."
Erickson hopes his team can play offensively the way it did in a 98-88 road win over Great Falls.
"We executed so well and were making the extra pass," he said. "That makes a big difference."
But the difference to Erickson is defense. He quickly admitted that his team must play well defensively to offset any early nerves and sluggishness offensively.
"Defense is the key for us," he said. "We have to play the same type of aggressive, physical defense that we're capable of. It has made us a much better team."
How many members of the team will be suited up remains to be seen. Erickson sat down senior center Megan Valgardson for the final game of the season because of disciplinary reasons. Earlier this week, he still hadn't decided whether she will suit up for the tournament, but he admits her presence (11.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg) on the floor is big.
Northern did put up 98 points without her, and has plenty of weapons. Sophomore Jessi Reome is leading Northern in scoring at 14.6 points per game. She also leads the Frontier in 3-pointers made, with a whopping 92. Recently, she fought off a bad back to score 25 points on 9-10 shooting against UGF and was named the Frontier Conference women's basketball player of the week.
"She's still hurting," Erickson said. "We hoped to get her more rest against UGF, but she is such a competitor, it's tough to keep her off the floor. She won't be 100 percent this weekend, but you won't get her off the floor."
Northern also has the solid guard tandem of transfers Jaci Heny and Camille Gardner. The duo combines for 19 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game. The Skylights are also getting close to 10 points and five rebounds per game from junior Michele VanDyke and solid play from reserves Kristie Pullin, DeLayne Johnston and Jena Heggem.
"It's tournament time and we need players to step up and raise their level of play," Erickson said. "We need to have everybody continue to contribute in some way."
Early in the conference season, Northern had positioned itself for a possible at-large bid for the NAIA national tournament. However, some key losses have erased that hope. Now, the Skylights must win the conference tourney to continue their season.
"I don't think there is any reason why we can't win this tournament," Erickson said. "We have beaten every team in the league besides Carroll and we had our chances to do that. We know we can play with any team.
"We just have to stay focused at all times on the court and maintain our intensity the entire game."